Ostrom lays out three models for the ways in which groups govern themselves. The first is the “tragedy of the commons” as Garrett Hardin called it, which she defines as symbolic of “the degradation of the environment to be expected whenever many individuals use a scarce resource in common.” This tragedy is illustrated by a pasture on which many herders allow their animals to graze. It is in the best interest of each individual herder to have as many animals as he can but it is not in the collective interest for all herders because if everyone is maximizing their number of cattle then the pasture is being overgrazed. The only way to curtail this overgrazing is for each herder to control individual herd population thus limiting the gain one can make from that herd.
The second model is the prisoner’s dilemma game. I didn’t really think Ostrom’s explanation of the actual game was particularly clear having played the game before so I went to trusty old Wikipedia for this explanation:
Two members of a criminal gang are arrested and imprisoned. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of speaking to or exchanging messages with the other. The police admit they don’t have enough evidence to convict the pair on the principal charge. They plan to sentence both to a year in prison on a lesser charge. Simultaneously, the police offer each prisoner a Faustian bargain. Here’s how it goes:
– If A and B both confess the crime, each of them serves 2 years in prison
– If A confesses but B denies the crime, A will be set free whereas B will serve 3 years in prison (and vice versa)
If A and B both deny the crime, both of them will only serve 1 year in prison
Because betraying your partner (by confessing) always rewards more than cooperating with them, all purely rational self-interested prisoners would betray the other, and so the only possible outcome for two purely rational prisoners is for them both to betray each other. The interesting part of this result is that pursuing individual reward logically leads both of the prisoners to betray, but they would get a better reward if they both cooperated.
I feel like that’s pretty straightforward but there are many ways to play this game that don’t necessarily need a literal prisoner as a character. The idea is that you have individuals who stand to do better working toward a collective interest than solely individual interests but rational humans are expected to act in their own best interest most of the time.
The third model is Mancur Olson’s logic of collective action, which basically says that it is assumed that individual members of groups will all work toward the commons goals but this assumption is not necessarily reflective of reality. If the fruits of the groups labor are publicly available then some members may choose to “free ride”, allowing the few to do the work on behalf of the many. Free riding also can water down the outcome, making it less successful than intended or perhaps even causing failure. What all three models have in common is the conflict between self interest and the collective good.
As a member of the MFA DT community and occupant of the lab we lovingly call D12, I’ve seen a bit of the “tragedy of the unmanaged commons” and logic of collective action at play. At the start of last semester the lab was a complete wreck. People had left the remains of projects strewn all over the place. There were pieces on the windowsills, some labeled by their creators and others not. The whiteboard walls had gotten so dirty that the leavings of whatever people had written needed some elbow grease to get erased. Students regularly left meals in various states of completion on the tables as if this were a restaurant and someone would bus their table. What I didn’t understand was that it’s in everyone’s interest for this space to be pleasant and clean. Why wouldn’t everyone want to keep it orderly? The leaving of food on tables suggests that people expected to be cleaned up after. People just assumed that the powers that be would take care of everything. What’s become clear to me in my time here is that, at least in this program, everything is what we make of it. But it’s in your average busy DT student’s self-interest to keep her head down and make things. To fast-forward to the outcome of this, we organized a “Spring Cleaning” day that a lot of students took part in and the lab was cleaner than it had been since I’d laid eyes on it.
What working examples of models such as the tyranny of the commons, the prisoner’s dilemma, and the logic of collective action can you think of from your own experience with groups you are a part of? Did you find yourself agreeing with what Ostrom said or disagreeing? Are the collective good and self-interest opposed by definition or is there space to negotiate these seemingly divergent aims?