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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Tragedy of the Commons

Not long ago I wrote about the tragedy of the commons, a concept that emerged from laws governing property—usually land, held in common for the benefit of a group or the public overall. The tragedy, is what occurs when one or more individuals neglect those benefits in order to obtain personal gain. I have been thinking about this a great deal of late in several contexts, but it is almost always present whenever the rights of the individual are in opposition to the welfare of society as a whole.


Rarely, do we speak about this when discussing the responsibilities of individuals rather than their rights, yet to my thinking that is a critical issue in the present climate of ideological disunion. Increasingly, we seem to shift responsibility for almost everything necessary to the order and functioning of our society to someone else. In commissioning individuals to perform certain functions—such as policing, protecting our health or teaching our children we have a tendency to abdicate our own role, suggesting we believe it is someone else’s job to do these things because we have after all paid, via taxes or fees to have them done.


Now I am not suggesting that everyone should carry a gun, study medicine or become a professor. Professionals—let’s call them that, have presumably earned the right to be called as such by virtue of study, and experience. When we engage them, either directly or by proxy, to act on our behalf we have every right to expect they will do their jobs competently and without violation of laws or societal norms. But we do not have any right to expect that our own responsibilities end there. If we contract lung cancer from smoking all our lives it is not the fault of the physician who gives us the prognosis and we do not have the option of declining parental obligations to raise our children as responsible and respectful human beings by suggesting that they should learn these traits in school alone. Similarly, we are not exonerated from abiding by the law or excusing others from doing so simply because law enforcement exists.


In older societies there was a more fundamental understanding of the responsibilities of each and every individual to the community amongst whom one lived. The statement: It’s not my job, simply did not exist. Today, however, it is common to shift responsibility onto someone or something other than ourselves for any and all things we regard as wrong or injurious. This is an easy thing to do when we talk about big issues like climate change, resource scarcity, poverty, and racism among dozens of other examples. After all, what can we do as individuals and besides, we have paid or elected someone to deal with this issue. But it is we who are accountable, and it is we who will suffer for our dereliction of responsibility.


The British comedians, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore had a sketch in which Moore was interviewing a proto typical snobbish gentleman by the name of Sneed-Greebly who was ranting on about the depravations of the second world war fully 30 years after its conclusion. Sneed-Greebly comments that it was all terribly messy and bothersome, to which Moore testily responds that everyone would heartily agree the war was horrendous. Sneed-Greebly in high dudgeon responds in his most righteous tones “yes, but I wrote a letter!”


It is all too easy to dismiss our own responsibility with a similar wave—we pay taxes, presumably we vote, maybe even know who sits on our school board or the names of a few elected officials. That is where it ends for most of us—we are good, law-abiding citizens. We’ve done our job—now it is up to those we hired or elected to do their’s. But let any of those officials, politicians, hired or elected do anything with which we may disagree, especially if we regard their actions as inimical to our own interests and we are indignant.


If the world seems a harsh, irresponsible or dark place we must first address our own contributions to those conditions. We cannot hide behind the letters we wrote, the marches we attended, the canvassing we did or even the peaceful protests to which we were party. Those are all certainly meaningful ways to begin but they are not resting places for personal responsibility. If the world is broken—as some believe—then it is our job to begin its mending. It is not something we may delegate to others or future generations. That means every day in every interaction we must be mindful of not only the rights we enjoy—but the weight of responsibility we hold towards every person we meet, even and especially those with whom we disagree. We do not have the luxury of being judged by future generations if we hope to leave them a world made better by our actions today.

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