Tragedy of the Commons

James Tonkowich | Columnist | Monday, July 2, 2012

Tragedy of the Commons

“Our nation is rapidly approaching a point from which there is little chance to avoid a financial collapse.” So writes columnist Walter Williams for the Foundation for Research on Economy and the Environment (FREE). “The heart of the problem,” he goes on to say, “can be seen as a tragedy of the commons.”

The commons in a village was the pastureland available to everyone. No one owned it; all had access. In such a situation, every farmer had the incentive to graze as many animals as possible, filling them up with “free” food and turning a profit.

The tragedy is the overgrazing that results. The commons is finite and can only support so many animals. Too many animals will eat all the grass, which leads to soil erosion and finally the destruction of the commons. That is, the incentive for short-term gain by individuals acting in their best interest leads to a long-term result that is in no one’s best interest. Short-term profits lead to long-term poverty.

“We can think of the federal budget,” Williams writes, “as a commons…” The members of Congress, the President, bureaucrats in every federal agency, states, and untold thousands of constituency groups all acting in their self-interests “graze” the commons. A program increase here, a few earmarks there, a project in this or that district all add up. Whether or not the late Senator Everett Dirkson ever said it or not, it’s nonetheless true that, “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking real money.” And today it’s not billions, but trillions.

Nonetheless, like the commons, the federal budget is finite because revenue is finite. The overgrazing that satisfies the self-interest of every constituency eventually leads to tragedy — the commons will be destroyed. Will the Department of Health and Human Services voluntarily cut their budget by 25 percent? Hardly. Will AARP admit that without changes in Medicare and Social Security our government will go broke? Not a chance. Will Congressman X say, “No thank you, my district has more than enough federal funding”? Not if he wants to be a congressman next year.

Walter Williams points out that this is precisely what has gone on in Europe. The tragedies in Greece, Italy, and elsewhere are “a direct result of their massive spending to accommodate the welfare state. A greater number of people are living off government welfare programs than are paying taxes.” There are no incentives to pay taxes and no incentives to refuse government largess. So Europeans are busily munching away at the commons. The predictable results will be tragic for billions of people.

Then Williams asks the big question, “Is the U.S. moving in a direction toward or away from the troubled EU nations?” He is none too sanguine, quoting Benjamin Franklin who said, “When the people find they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic.” Safe to say, we discovered that we can vote ourselves money some time ago.

Sober thoughts as we prepare to celebrate the republic on the Fourth of July.

Perhaps some encouragement — or at least a signpost toward encouragement — can be found in the very document signed on July 4, 1776. The last words of the Declaration of Independence read, “And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”

Avoiding the tragedy of the commons requires taking ownership and that means a spiritual change. That change includes “a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence” rather than a firm reliance on the protection and provision of government. It includes a willingness to do without instead of incessant demanding. And it includes a willingness to risk or even to forgo life and fortune for a greater good and the wellbeing of future generations.

That is, it will take a distinctively Christian spiritual change that conforms our character and the American character to the virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. While other religions may include the love of god, Christianity alone is founded on the sacrificial love of God and the command to imitate that sacrificial love (John 15:12-17).

Sidestepping the tragedy of the commons through spiritual renewal is, I know, a long shot. But then so was signing the Declaration of Independence and fighting to make the declaration a reality. Sometimes by the grace of God long shots come true.

Have a happy Fourth.

James Tonkowich is a freelance writer and speaker who has worked with the Institute for Religion and Democracy, the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, Oxford House Research, and BreakPoint with Chuck Colson. He has received a Master of Divinity and a Doctorate of Ministry in Christian Spirituality from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Publication date: July 2, 2012