Protecting the Commons

The tragedy of the commons is an economic problem, arising when multiple individuals can unilaterally access a shared resource (in economic terms, it’s rival but nonexcludable).  It comes from when medieval farmers would graze their animals on common fields.  Every individual benefits from grazing just one more animal, but eventually the fields are overgrazed and everyone starves.  Tragedy of the commons can also refer to goods with a high up front cost but zero marginal cost (so they’re nonrival as well).  No, you pirating Game of Thrones doesn’t cost HBO anything, but if everyone pirates Game of Thrones then HBO won’t make it, and judging by the number of people that pirate it, that would make many people very sad.

You may notice that medieval farmers did not all starve and therefor must have found a way to avoid overgrazing, and that Game of Thrones exists.  Some of this is survivorship bias- we don’t know what shows wouldn’t have been made if they were easier to monetize.  But some of this is that humans have devoted a lot of brain space to solving social problems and we have tools Homo economicus doesn’t.  We deride benefiting from something without contributing as free riding, and we punish people for it.

I think one reason some people react so poorly to the idea that it is more moral to help the third world than their own first world community is that it feels like freeriding.   They benefit a lot from being in their community and it is fair that when they are prosperous, they return the benefits.  If everybody moved their giving from local charities to global poverty charities then the first world would collapse and everyone would be worse off.  I think this is true, and it would be bad if it happened.  Maintaining the first world norms that let us be so wealthy and cooperative (seriously guys, we do an insane amount of cooperating with total strangers in one-off interactions) before saving Africa is the equivalent of putting on your oxygen mask before helping others. I think our oxygen mask is on right now and has more than enough money from others, so I give globally- which is kind of the equivalent of “I’d contribute to the kickstarter for that book if it were going to fail, but it’s got plenty of money so I’ll just pirate it.”

I struggle with this some, because I think the commons are sacred.  If too many people loot them, even for extremely good causes, even for causes better than what the commons are currently doing, they will disappear.  For example, let’s take, a website for posting and answering technical questions.  I ask way more questions on stackoverflow than I answer.  You could view this as free riding, but I view it as an inherent part of stack overflow: the knowledge is going to flow from the people who know the most who know the least.  The people who know the most are getting the joy of sharing and improving technical knowledge in the world.  So even though it’s an unequal exchange, I view it as morally pure.

But if someone used the traffic at stack overflow to funnel attention to their website, that would not be okay.  People gave their attention in the expectation it would be used for sharing technical knowledge.  If they keep getting tricked into viewing a different website they will stop coming and no one will tell me how the hell to get google compute engine instances to change templates.*  This is true whether the website is porn, knitting, or the Against Malaria Foundation, even if it raises money for AMF, even if the amount raised for AMF outweighs the value of stackoverflow.  It’s not just freeriding, it’s looting.

This is why it bothers me tremendously when, for example, someone continually advertises their own projects on a forum that has made it clear they don’t find it valuable.  They are hijacking something someone gave freely (their attention) to give it to something they didn’t consent to, and in doing so make people more guarded and less open.

Take the bagel man, who delivers bagels to offices on the honor system.  Some types of offices have a much higher payment rate than others (don’t bother feeding lawyers).  It is probably true that an AMF staffer getting an extra bagel when their blood sugar is low is more important than this guy getting an extra dollar; but if too many AMF staffers do that they will lose bagel deliveries entirely. This is why I think it is important to avoid freeriding, even if by utilitarian calculus it is morally better.

*I’m not kidding about this one, if you know the answer please email me at elizabeth @ this domain name


2 thoughts on “Protecting the Commons

  1. Yup, something like this is definitely right.

    I’m not sure I actually understand the argument for why its right (and I’m not sure you make the correct arguments here), but it definitely does seem right.

    One thing worth pointing out is that sometimes its better to have *some* cheating than either complete cheating or no cheating. For example, its probably bad to have *extremely good* copyright enforcement because some of the unpaid uses that happen are uses that wouldn’t have happened if they had to be paid (and there many be a lot of these).

    1. Is that true theoretically, or only in response to practical constraints? E.g. open immigration + GBI for citizens + no safety net for immigrants might be the best option, but given people’s discomfort with it, limited legal immigration + easy illegal immigration + benefits only for legal immigrants is the best we can get right now.

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