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Tragedy of the Commons and Collective Action

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 2002 words Published: 12th Oct 2017

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Do the concepts of the ‘tragedy of the commons’ and the problem of ‘collective action’ help you to understand what politics is essentially about? Your answer should include a statement of your understanding of the two concepts and examples to support your argument.

I do believe that the concepts of the ‘tragedy of the commons’ and the problem of ‘collective action’ help me to understand what politics is fundamentally about. In this essay I will explain why I believe this to be true. Before I can express how these concepts help with the essential understanding of politics, I must first unravel what exactly the idea of politics is, and I will then continue by applying them to the underlying idea of politics. To help me to do this I will use relevant examples of both in order to back up my opinion and to clearly express my views.

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It is not simple to define ‘politics’ in just one way as many people have said it to mean very different things. Even respected authorities cannot always agree as to what the subject is about (Heywood, 2013: 2). Harold D. Lasswell famously summed up the idea of politics as being ‘who gets what, when, and how’ (Lasswell, 1936), meaning that it is all about resources. It is about dividing these resources; what these resources are, how much of these resources there is to go around, what system will be used to decide how these resources will be divided up, and how to make sure that after the resources are finished being divided throughout society, that whatever deals were put in place will hold. Politics exists in organisations, groups, and families (Dye, 2002). The broadest definition of politics would be to describe it as the activity through which people make, preserve, and amend the general rules under which the live in society (Heywood, 2013: 2), and this leads to how politics is undoubtedly linked to conflict and cooperation, which in turn brings us to the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ concept and the ‘Collective Action’ problem.

A ‘commons’ is any resource that can be used as though it belongs to all. Garrett Hardin explained the concept of how tragedy can occur within a commons with a parable (Hardin, 1968). The parable was about farmers using a pasture which was open to all, for their herds to graze. As rational beings, each farmer will seek to maximise their own utility, and by pursuing their own self-satisfaction, we expect that each farmer will try to keep as many animals as possible on the pasture (Hardin, 1968). Eventually overgrazing and overcapacity destroys the system of the commons and leads to the collapse of the resource. This is the tragedy. In a limited world, freedom in a commons brings ruin to all, and it can take just one selfish person to break the equilibrium (Hardin, 1968). Of course the concept spreads much farther than just famers grazing their animals on a pasture. Quite a substantial proportion of the world’s most difficult problems can be seen through the lens of the Tragedy of the Commons; famine in Africa, drought, etc. The Tragedy of the Commons can honestly be seen almost anywhere we look in politics. The government can limit access to commons, but there is no technical solution because once this is done it is no longer commons (Hanson, 1997). If we look at America’s political system of ‘laissez faire’, everything, even people become commons. Money is political power and all political decision are reduced to economic ones, meaning that there is no political system but only an economic one (Hanson, 1997). America is one large commons that will be exploited until destruction (Hanson, 1997). The only seen solution is to invent and introduce a political system that cannot be bought monetarily, and then limit freedom in the commons. Otherwise the population will crash (Hanson, 1997).

The theoretical approach to politics known as the ‘rational-choice theory’ is a big notion behind the Tragedy of the Commons, and the Tragedy of the Commons definitely aids the understanding of this political theory. The theory assumes that the majority of ‘rational’ people act on the basis of self-interest and will calculate the likely costs and benefits of any action before deciding what to do and will only proceed if the benefits outweigh the costs (Scott, 2000). This theory is clearly employed and understood through the Tragedy of the Commons. In the parable of the farmers, the private benefits received from increasing their heard are greater than the private costs charged, and therefore the farmers adds more animals to the common grazing field. The commons is a fundamental social institution (Crowe, 1969). Hardin’s parable is a useful illustration of a genuine public-policy problem; how does one manage a resource that doesn’t belong to anyone? (Tierney, 2009). Due to man’s pursuance of self-interest, social co-operation doesn’t occur naturally, and problems are bound to arise when trying to make people co-operate in society. Government and social order is all about people coming together to achieve goals, and selfishness will effect many policy outcomes. The way we formulate ideas has a real impact on the society which we live in. People derive private benefits from common resources and the costs can be spread to people around them. We can take pollution as a relevant example. If I am lazy and decide to just throw my rubbish onto the street, I receive the benefit of the ease of discarding my waste without effort, while those around me receive the cost of a polluted town. Exhaust from cars pollutes the air and while the driver in benefited by quick and easy travel to their required destination, everyone around them suffers with polluted air and increase global warming.

Politics is centrally concerned with the maintenance and management of scarce resources. This is where collective action appears. Collective action is when a number of people come together to achieve a common objective, when it isn’t necessarily in anybody’s interest to do the right thing. It is about getting people who are busy rushing to do their own things, to do something collectively that will benefit all. We talk of the problem of scarce resources as a collective action problem, because essentially what is behind the idea is how to get people to come together- to cooperate. The ‘collective action problem’ describes the situation where the ‘free-rider’ problem occurs, when rational actors have no individual incentive to support the collective action (Scott, 2000), and despite their unwillingness to cooperate themselves, the still gain from the cooperation of others. Most action taken on behalf of groups of individuals is taken through organizations (Olson, 1965:9), and therefore my example will based on organizations in a general form. Rational individuals will join organizations where the benefits of membership and involvement outweigh the costs, but if they can still receive the benefits without joining the organization, they will not feel the need to join it. The rational choice theory is re-introduced here. If every individual views the membership of the organisation in the same way, nobody will be willing to join and there will be nobody left willing to provide the service of the organization. There is also the example of voters. Individual voters have very little influence over the result of elections and they therefore don’t pay much attention to politics or policy decisions. They do not analyse it in depth, and vote irrationally. We therefore end up with worse outcomes than we would have if they had chosen to stick with their lack of knowledge and not vote.

Cooperation is at the heart of the notion of collective action. Groups of individuals with common interests are expected to act on behalf of their common interests as much as single individuals are expected to act on behalf of their personal interests (Olson, 1965: 5). Unfortunately, people do not cooperate naturally. When left with individuals who are motivated by self-interest and don’t work for the group, we must think: what kind of society can emerge and how do you force people into action that will make them work for the group. Tax is a social condition. It is not left up to the people to decide what amount they think they should pay, as although tax paid goes towards services that benefit society as a whole, individuals would avoid paying if they had the choice, if they felt they could still receive the same benefits. Making tax a social condition is an example of a solved political collective action problem in a way.

In conclusion I feel that I have convincingly explained why I believe that the concept of the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ and the ‘Collective Action’ problem both aid in the understanding of what politics is essentially about. What fundamentally links these ideas with politics is cooperation, as it is the foundation for them all. The political ‘Rational Choice’ theory can be comprehended when used with examples from both the tragedy of the commons, and the collective action problem. Politics is about managing resources and searching for conflict resolution that may arise, and both ideas can definitely be described as conflicts that may be faced during this process.


CROWE, L. B. (1969) Science, New Series. The Tragedy of the Commons Revisited. [Internet], November 1969, 166(3909), pp. 1103-1107. Available from: http://www.sciencemag.org/site/feature/misc/webfeat/sotp/pdfs/166-3909-1103.pdf [Accessed 11th January 2014].

DYE, R. T. (2002) Politics in America, Basic Edition. New Jersey, Prentice Hall (5th Edition). Available from: http://wps.prenhall.com/hss_dye_politics_5/6/1739/445252.cw/index.html [Accessed 7th January 2014].

HANSON, J. (1997) Tragedy of the Commons Re-Stated. Available from: http://dieoff.org/page109.htm [Accessed 12th January 2014].

HARDIN, G. (1968) Science. The Tragedy of the Commons. [Internet], December 1968, 162, pp. 1243-1248. Available from: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/162/3859/1243.full [Accessed 7th January 2014].

HEYWOOD, A. (2013) Politics. Hampshire, Palgrave Macmillan (4th Edition).

LASSWELL, D. H. (1936) Politics: Who Gets What, When, How. New York, London, Whittlesey House, McGraw-Hill Book Company Incorporated.

OLSON, M. (1965) The Logic of Collective Action. Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Massachsetts, Harvard University Press.

SCOTT, J. (2000) ‘Rational Choice Theory’, in G Browning, A Halcli, & F Webster (eds), Understanding Contemporary Society: Theories of the Present. London, SAGE Publications Ltd, pp. 126-139. Available from: http://www.soc.iastate.edu/Sapp/soc401rationalchoice.pdf [Accessed 10th January 2014].

TIERNEY, J. (2009,) The Non-Tragedy of the Commons. The New York Times. Available from: http://tierneylab.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/10/15/the-non-tragedy-of-the-commons/?_r=0 [Accessed 12th January 2014].


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