Jan 11 2012
Over the last few weeks in our IB Economics class, we have been studying cases in which markets fail to achieve an efficient, socially optimal level of production and consumption when the private buyers and sellers are left to interact in a free market. Markets fail in many ways; sometimes they produce too much of a good, and sometimes too little is produced. There are some things society would benefit from having more of, while other things society would be better off with less than what is produced by the free market.
When the free market fails to achieve a socially optimal level of output, at which the costs and benefits not just of the individual consumers and producers are accounted for, but all social, environmental and health costs and benefits are weighed as well, the government may be able to improve on the free market outcome by intervening in some way. For example, certain goods deemed beneficial for society are simply under-provided by private firms: Education, infrastructure, public transportation, security, health care… these are all markets in which government often intervenes to increase the provision of the good to society. In other cases, government intervenes to decrease the amount of a good consumed: Cigarettes, alcohol, reckless driving, polluting factories, violence on TV, child pornography, dangerous drugs… in each of these cases governments tend to use taxes, regulation or legislation to reduce the amount of the harmful good available on the market.
Besides the merit (beneficial) goods and the demerit (harmful) goods described above, markets may fail in other ways as well. One notable form of market failure arises due to a phenomenon first articulated by American ecologist Garrett Hardin, who warned of the Tragedy of the Commons. In his 1968 essay, Hardin explained that when there exist common resources, for which there is no private owner, the incentive among rational users of that resources is to exploit it to the fullest potential in order to maximize their own self gain before the resource is depleted. The tragedy of the commons, therefore, is that common resources will inevitably be depleted due to humans’ self-interested behavior, leaving us with shortages in key resources essential to human survival.
Each of the videos below illustrates a different example of the tragedy of the commons. Watch the videos and think about how each applies Hardin’s concept.
Example 1: Thousands of fishermen empty lake in minutes:
Example 2 – Dr. Suess’s The Lorax
Example 3 – Tuna fishing
In each of the videos above, there is a common resource (fish and trees) over which no ownership has previously been established. The resource users (the Malian fishermen, the Once-ler and his family and the tuna boat), all have a strong incentive to maximize their own short term gain by extracting and exploiting the resource as quickly as possible.
- In the Mali fishing hole, the outcome is observable: within minutes the resource is depleted and there are no more fish for for future fisherman to enjoy.
- In The Lorax the result of the Once-ler’s exploitation of the forest is foretold in the beginning of the story when the young boy comes upon the desolate outskirts of his town.
- The tragedy of the commons acts as a warning to the tuna fishing industry, in which there are still tuna surviving in the world’s oceans, but at the rates industrial fishing boats such as the Albatun Tres exploit the resource, it will not be around much longer.
Garret Hardin – the Tragedy of the Commons
- Hardin refers to Karl Marx’s adage “from each according to his abilities, to each according to this needs.” What does Hardin have against this socialist idea?
- How does Hardin’s example of a “common pasture” illustrate the tragedy of the commons? How is a common pasture similar to the three examples in the videos above?
- According to Hardin, what are the only two solutions to the common pasture problem? Which of these solutions do you think would be most socially desirable?
- Explain Hardin’s claim that “the unmanaged commons cannot possibly work once the population gets above a certain size”. Of the world’s common resources today, what are some examples of common resources that remain unmanaged?
- Whose responsibility should it be to decide how common resources should be dealt with?
- Do you agree with Hardin’s claim that “the world cannot possibly live at the American standard of living at its present population size”? Which of his predictions do you think is most likely to occur: Will the American (and Western European) standard of living have to go down or will the number of people in the world have to be reduced? Or is there a third possibility? Discuss.
About the author: Jason Welker teaches International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement Economics at Zurich International School in Switzerland. In addition to publishing various online resources for economics students and teachers, Jason developed the online version of the Economics course for the IB and is has authored two Economics textbooks: Pearson Baccalaureate’s Economics for the IB Diploma and REA’s AP Macroeconomics Crash Course. Jason is a native of the Pacific Northwest of the United States, and is a passionate adventurer, who considers himself a skier / mountain biker who teaches Economics in his free time. He and his wife keep a ski chalet in the mountains of Northern Idaho, which now that they live in the Swiss Alps gets far too little use. Read more posts by this author
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