09 September 2008

The myth of the tragedy of the commons

Community management isn't an infallible way of protecting shared resources: some communities have mismanaged common resources, and some commons may have been overused to extinction. But no commons-based community has capitalism's built-in drive to put current profits ahead of the well-being of future generations. Ian Angus, The Myth of the Tragedy of the Commons

This is an important essay. The 'tragedy of the commons' myth has provided intellectual backing for the destruction of many of those things, difficult to define and more difficult still to quantify, that give life meaning. As Mr Angus points out, self-regulation by communities was the way in which the commons were looked after. The notion of communities itself is disappearing (largely, in my view, for the reasons identified by Robert Putnam: too much immigration and diversity). Could Social Policy Bonds help preserve the commons? One way might be to target those benefits that real, self-regulating communities generate, and reward people for achieving them - or for removing the obstacles to their achievement.

Take crime. Freedom to walk around cities at night is one of those difficult-to-quantify things that has been lost, at least in the countries I know best, New Zealand and the UK. Current efforts to reduce street crime seem to focus on better policing or increased surveillance; but perhaps more thinking out of the box is required. A Social Policy Bond rewarding safer streets (measured by, say, something like a sophisticated footfalls: crime ratio), could see the emergence of more subtle and less obvious approaches. These could include the provision of entertainment facilities for young potential robbers; better street lighting; deregulated taxis; subsidised public transport. Together an optimal combination of measures could bring about not just the benefits of the commons, but also the community that self-regulates.

There's little in our current political approach that enhances community. Friction between individuals is inevitable, but our current ways of dealing with it tend to encourage even greater mutual isolation, mirroring the institutional structures that government embodies and understands. Problems like those of crime or the preservation of scarce resources or the maintenance of other aspects of the commons are not always amenable to the straightforward, cause-and-effect, one-size-fits-all, top-down approach that government does best. A Social Policy Bond regime, targeting desirable, broad outcomes of the sort that the community evolved to provide, could be one answer to the question: how do we best preserve the commons?

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