Tragedy Of the Commons II
By John Stossel
My Thanksgiving column about how the pilgrims nearly starved practicing communal farming but thrived once they switched to private cultivation made some people angry. One commented, "Sharing of the fruits of our labor is a bad thing?"
I never said that.
I practice charity regularly. I believe in sharing. But when government takes our money by force and gives it to others, that's not sharing.
And sharing can't be a basis for production -- you can't share what hasn't been produced. My point is that production and prosperity require property rights. Property rights associate effort with benefits. Where benefits are unrelated to effort, people do the least amount necessary to get by while taking the most they can get. Economists have a pithy way of summing up this truth: No one washes a rental car.
It's called the "tragedy of the commons." The idea is as old as ancient Greece, but ecologist Garrett Hardin popularized the phrase in a 1968 Science magazine article. Hardin described a common pasture on which anyone may graze his livestock. Each person will benefit from a larger herd but will suffer only a tiny fraction of the negative effects of overgrazing. Public Choice economists call this "concentrated benefits and dispersed costs."
That's a recipe for depleting the resource. If a herdsman were to leave a portion of the commons ungrazed, someone else would gain the benefit, so why leave it ungrazed? Soon, all the grass is gone, and the livestock die. That's the tragedy of the commons.