Discontent of the Commons

In a session on “The Politics of Discontent” at this year’s Frontiers of Democracy conference, democracy scholar Alison Staudinger proposed considering “discontent” as a common pool resource. I am deeply intrigued by this idea, and interested to understand just what that might mean.

In 1968, ecologist Garrett Hardin popularized the concept of the “Tragedy of the Commons,” describing the game-theoretic prisoner’s dilemma which communities of people face when utilizing some common resource:

Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.

As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain….the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another… But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit–in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.

This idea has been applied to a wide variety of resources which can be broadly categorized along two spectrums: excludable and subtractable. As the names suggest, excludable indicates whether or not people can be easily excluded from a resource while subtractable indicates whether use of a resource by one person restricts use of the resource by another.

The clothes I am wearing are both excludable and subtractable – I can prevent your use of them, and you cannot use them while I am using them. Wikipedia is non-excludable and non-subtactable – I cannot prevent your use and my use does not diminish yours. If Wikipedia added a paywall or if a State blocked its use, it would become excludable.

Seen as a common pool resource, discontentment would seem to fit in this non-excludable, non-subtactable category. I cannot stop you from feeling discontent, and I can be discontent without infringing on your ability to also be discontent.

Yet, this is perhaps not the most helpful framework. The political challenges we face today are not so much that people feel discontent – rather the challenge is the causes and repercussions of that discontent.

It is a fundamental aspect of a pluralist society that not everyone will agree all of the time. We each have different needs and wants, and our desired outcomes will at times be in conflict. We can’t all get what we want.

Under a simple definition, then, a person is discontent if they do not get their way. Since not everyone in a pluralistic society can simultaneously have their way, it is intrinsic that some portion of people will be discontent with any given issue.

This presents at least two possible social challenges connected to discontent. If discontent is inequitably and systemically distributed, those who have more discontent with have reason to see the system as unjust. If people experience the system as treating them unjustly, they will have reason to try to change the system – minimizing their own discontentment while making someone else more discontent.

Here, discontent seems to no longer be a resource – rather can be better interpreted as the absence of a resource.

The word that comes to mind here is power.

People with power can get the outcomes they desire, minimizing their discontent; people without power are subject to the whims of those with power – increasing the likelihood that they will not get the outcomes they desire and increasing their discontent.

Power, I would argue, is an excludable and subtractable resource. Those with power have certainly been known to exclude others from acquiring power, and if I have power, it does, I think, diminish your ability to have power.

This model unites people from all sides of the political spectrum who feel discontent under current systems and institutions. Some may feel they are losing power, some may never of had much power in the first place.

And the highest elites may feel most secure in the continuance of their power if everyone else is busy fighting over who gets whatever scraps are left.

Elinor Ostrom, the brilliant economist who argued that the drama of the commons need not be a tragedy, traveled around the world empirically studying communal and institutional management of common pool resources.

In Covenants, Collective Action, and Common-Pool Resources, Ostrom argues that conflict and destruction arise when “those involved act independently owing to a lack of communication or an incapacity to make credible commitments.” On the other hand, if members of a community “can communicate, agree on norms, monitor each other, and sanction noncompliance to their own covenants, then overuse, conflict, and the destruction of [common pool resources] can be reduced substantially.”

Managing common pool resources, then, is difficult but not impossible.

“If those who know the most about local time-and-place information and incentives are given sufficient autonomy to reach and enforce local covenants,” she argues. “They frequently are able to devise rules well tailored to the problems they face.”

In addition to this autonomy of the people, communication is essential:

“When symmetric subjects are given opportunities to communicate and devise their own agreements and sanctioning arrangements, then the outcomes approximate optimality,” Ostrom writes. “These findings are surprising for many theorists, because the capacity to communicate without an external enforcer for monitoring and sanctioning behavior inconsistent with covenantal agreements is considered to be mere ‘cheap talk’ having no impact on the strategic structure of the game.”

In seeing the rise of populism, in watching discontented people making bad political decisions, in seeing the mismanagement of a common pool resource, the liberal impulse is often to solve the problem through stronger regulation – to create institutions nominally managed by the people which can step in with rules and authority in order to overcome the destructive self-interest and poorly-informed actions of individual actors.

But perhaps Ostrom’s work on common pool resources ought to give us pause – “the people” may not collectively be wise, but they have the ability to surprise us; to work out their differences and to successfully self-manage in ways that external enforcing institutions could never accomplish.

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