In this essay, I will outline my understanding of the two related concepts of the ‘tragedy of the commons’ and ‘collective action’. This essay will argue that these concepts are at the heart of politics and will seek to prove this through illustration. I will relate the concepts to a variety of political examples in order to demonstrate that they can help one to understand what politics is essentially about. In the conclusion, I will review how helpful these two related concepts are in understanding what politics is about.
Tragedy of the Commons
The tragedy of the commons refers to a situation involving the exploitation of common resources by individual actors. The basic idea is that each individual acts in their own self-interest and exploits the resources even if this leads to a situation where everyone suffers due to exhaustion of the common property. Garrett Hardin originally explained the situation using the example of a common pasture which herdsmen used to graze their sheep. Each herdsman seeks to maximise their own utility, and faces the choice of whether to add an extra sheep to the common resource at the risk of overgrazing and depleting the pasture. By adding an extra sheep each individual can reap the benefit of having an extra sheep while the cost of overgrazing is shared among all. In this way, the rational choice for each actor is to add an extra sheep as the cost is only a fraction of the benefit. This situation ends with sheep being added until the commons is depleted, resulting in the worst situation for all. This is the tragedy Hardin speaks of: “Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit - in a world that is limited... Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”
Collective Action refers to the collaboration of individuals in pursuit of a goal. This goal is usually the provision of a public good. This may be because it is not in any private actor’s interest to supply a good which benefits all, as may be the case with a railway service. It may be difficult for an individual to produce a good without collaboration, eg. The shipping industry. This is also an example of how sometimes the sheer amount of resources needed to provide a good mean collaboration is necessary. Another important reason for collective action is that often it is in the interests of fairness. In the case of water supply, which is vital to the survival of all, it would be unfair if supply was restricted to those areas where it was most profitable or to those people who could pay the highest price.
How the Tragedy of the Commons and Collective Action Relate to Politics
These two concepts are central to politics. Politics can be seen as the process by which groups of people make decisions. These decisions involve the allocation of scarce resources in order to best satisfy the infinite desires of humans. On a national level, this is the process by which governments rule states. Politics is inextricably linked with collective action, as it involves the collaboration of people in pursuit of common goals. Political systems exist because people can achieve a higher standard of living through the benefits of collective action and protection of the state. Health systems are an obvious example of a service individuals could not provide by themselves. The complexities of treatment and expertise required come only with collective action. Goods and services for which collective action is advantageous often end up being supplied by the state. The state promotes the common good through the collaboration of all the individuals in it; this is the very definition of collective action given above. The Tragedy of the Commons is a crucial element of politics. It illustrates the inherent disadvantages that occur when people act individually without governance. Politics provides the means by which a solution to the Tragedy of the Commons can be achieved. Many such...
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