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Congress and The Tragedy of the Commons

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by Thomas Scovill

The Tragedy of the Commons is an example of a social trap where individuals take short term benefits to their long term detriment and that of the group or community to which they belong.

In feudal times, The Commons was common land which every tenant of the manor could use for his own benefit, e.g., pasture for grazing livestock. The Boston Commons is a more recent example where the city set aside a pasture which could be used by all the citizens of the city. The city was founded in 1630. Because it was free, by 1646 overgrazing had become a problem and so a limit of 70 was put on the number of cows allowed to graze at any one time. Although it worked out for Boston, history is replete with examples of renewable resources held and used in common which were destroyed by a social trap.

We can think of the US Treasury as a commons. So far, its resources are continually renewed by the taxes paid by citizens and the revenue from the sale of debt by the federal government in the form of bonds, bills, and notes. There are practical limits on the revenue that can be produced from taxes because high taxes discourage the activity being taxed. There are also practical limits on the debt that can be incurred by the federal government because of its finite capability to service its debt. We may be close to that limit now because the federal government has resorted to buying its own debt with money it prints, much like a thirsty sailor drinking saltwater.

The obvious remedy to our current fiscal, monetary, and economic problems is for governments to spend less, to tax less, and to constrain economic growth less. But this is hard for those in or near government to do.

It is hard to do because we are in a social trap. Every member of Congress has a short term incentive to continue to provide public goods to the constituents of his district. These public goods include Social Security and health care, welfare, food stamps, crop and other subsides, defense spending, and a myriad of other things for which special interests clamor.

So our elected officials spend and spend, tax and tax, borrow and borrow, and are reelected and  reelected while the national debt grows ever larger. Members of Congress tout all of the good they do. State and local officials eagerly seek and accept federal money and then they too tout the good they do. The frequent excuse from these spendthrifts is that “the money was there to be taken and if I did not take it someone else would have.” Or as the so-called budget hawk Senator Phil Gram (R, TX) said, “as long as there is pork in the budget I intend to see Texas gets its share.”

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This cannot go on forever, and as Detroit shows, what cannot go on forever, will at some point stop. What is happening in Detroit is not pretty and it will be much uglier when states and the country stop as surely they must.

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Your Congress persons do not have a solution to this social trap because they are the principal problem. The Democrats do not admit there is a problem and other than urging we elect more of them, Republicans are not  prepared to take even small steps of amelioration. Most in or near government are in this social trap. Is there anything citizens can do besides pray?

Well, here we will do one thing. If you know of a public servant who is not in this social trap, please identify him by name or office and tell us why you think he is not yet been snared.

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