Reading Response: Governing the Commons

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?

14 thoughts on “Reading Response: Governing the Commons”

  1. The prisoner’s dilemma makes me think of the value of competition in group works. In the real life, I think there are more (compete, compete) outcomes more than (defect, defect) outcomes. The time when people disagree with other people’s opinions or feel not satisfied with other people’s participations, the competitive environment is creating. Especially when people are in the process of deciding the way to reach the common goal. Everyone in the group is trying their bests to be more persuasive. According to the prisoner’s dilemma, those team members are not rational at that time. However, they are developing all their potentials. On contrary to the irrational conditions, individually rational strategies lead to a peaceful environment with only about half of everyone’s contributes. Rational people usually keep the opposite opinions in mind and wait for the proper time. So if most of the collaborators prefer the (cooperate, cooperate) outcome, people only need to pay half of their efforts.

    1. Carol,
      Please explain what you mean by this statement: “the time when people disagree with other people’s opinions or feel not satisfied with other people’s participations, the competitive environment is creating.”
      I think you’re leading towards a great debate, but I need to understand this statement better.
      Caroline

      1. HI Carrol, I may be wrong, but I am not sure if the prisoners dilemma is about agreeing with each other? I think its about contributing to the common good, like doing the dishes in a group apartment. You can choose to never do the dishes (free ride), thinking someone will clean up after you. Or you can choose to always do the dishes, even if others “free ride,” because you want to make sure the place is clean. Or you can all choose to do the dishes whenever you can, and things will probably turn out fine.

  2. The example of prisoners is actually very interesting. It reminds me of one lecture I heard before. The lecturer was describing his own working experience of collaboration and how it went down forcing him to change his job. His old company is using an evaluating system that regardless of the real performances that take place in collaboration, there will be a portion of team members get perfect evaluation and a potion get the worst. This means that when you are collaborating with your team members, you still need to watch out for them because they are eventually your competitors. The methodology leads the collaboration into an extremely awkward situation that when you are involving in the team, you can not share too much information with you co-workers to prevent them getting better reviews than you. And this does not really work for a field such as design. So when we look back at the collaboration, there shouldn’t be an individual incentive that motivate people to get to this place.

    1. Peter,
      When you say “watch out for your collaborators” you mean “stay on your guard” not “support,” correct? Your description of this workplace sounds a bit like school assignments. How do you think individual incentives in terms of personal grading in collective efforts supports or detracts from collaborative work in school? Should collaborative groups get one grade?
      Caroline

      1. I was first exposed to game theory and the prisoner’s dilemma through a clip I watched of “Golden Balls,” a game show that involves choosing to split the money prize with your competitor or to take all of it and leave your rival with nothing. I think Golden Balls is a good indicator that a collaboration can boil down to becoming a competition, like Peter said, in which you have take care for yourself. In my experience with school assignments, the whole group usually receives one grade, which I think is because it is normally not always clear who did what in the project, so it comes down to one evaluation for the entire collaboration. This prospect definitely detracts from collaborative work because one can get away with doing nothing and end up still receiving a good grade. However, fortunately, it usually becomes apparent if one person has done more of the work, something I have experienced in the past, and the rest of the group consequently suffers in their grades. I suppose this suggests that I also work solely in my best interests too, but I don’t think that this is a selfish act in this context because I want the collective project to succeed.

  3. Reading these “three influential models” reminded me of bell hooks and Cornel West’s Breaking Bread, a transcribed conversation from 1991 at Yale. In their conversation, bell hooks says, “It’s as though as Black people we have lost our understanding of the importance of mutual interdependency, of communal living. That we no longer recognize as valuable the notion that we collectively shape the terms of our survival is a sign of crisis. Often when people are suffering a legacy of deprivation there is a sense that there are never enough goodies to go around, so that we must viciously compete with one another.”

    I highlight crisis here to get to the moderators’ question about whether self-interest and collective good can be negotiated. In this reading Cornell West comes back to this idea of crisis and says, “We need to affirm one another, support one another, help, enable, equip, and empower one another to deal with the present crisis, but it can’t be uncritical…People grow, develop and mature along the lines in which they are taught. Disenabling critique and contemptuous feedback hinders.”

    I think people can act in self-interest and still function as part of a collective as long as there are times devoted to feedback. Like West says, these moments for critical feedback of one’s actions are imperative to acknowledging people’s humanity. Sometimes we mess up, we act in self-interest and it hurts the group. If I can tell you how your actions might have hurt me and the collective, then you have the option of reflecting on your past decisions and what behavioral/ideological changes you would like to make.

    I’m aware that feedback can successfully happen at only certain scale (cellular structures), but how can we re-imagine the ways we give each other feedback at larger levels?

    1. Yes! Perhaps the need for feedback in large scale collaborations (and/or social movements) has to be a cultural norm, which is why consciousness raising circles and Freedom schools in the 60s were so important?

    2. PS- The phrase “rational, self-interested” is funny. It’s as if to be rational is to be self-interested and vice versa. I think it’d be interesting for us to do a reading that covers similar topics, but from a non-Western perspective.

      1. Indeed, it’s Melanie and I who are reproducing white supremacy with this reading list, and I’m sorry that our syllabus and knowledge base are so white and Western. If you have time and interest in suggesting a reading on collaboration, solidarity, rationality, and/or self-community interest from a non-Western perspective, please do! If you feel that putting the burden of information-sharing on you is unjust, I understand. I only place this comment here to acknowledge the reality of my limits: being educated with Western texts and not reading enough non-Western texts on my own.

  4. From the three models, ‘free riders’ (or ‘Logic of Collective Action’) is definitely the one I have most experience with. I went to two different undergrad programs in the Netherlands. Free riding was a big issue in the first program (and one of the reasons I left after a year): of a team of 8, the general rule was that you could only count on the work of 3 others. The second program had a very similar emphasis on team projects, but the program had a admission procedure where the first one did not. I think this effected team work very positively, people had gone through the trouble of applying for the program and were hand-picked by the faculty. The conflict of self interest vs the collective good here was that I think a good number of students of the first program weren’t in it for a 100%, their own interest were far more important.

    It’s an interesting idea of hand-picking people for a collective, rather than allowing everyone to join. I think it creates tighter bonds, and I’m curious how it would effect the other two models, the tragedy of the commons and the the prisoner’s dilemma.

  5. Governing the Commons was a very insightful piece of literature. It talked mostly about human nature and the competition we have among ourselves to always be on top. This ties in with the idea of survival of the fittest. Our nature to deflect and not concern ourselves with the common good is embedded in our very DNA. For example, wars involve the loss of countless lives which is how we choose to deflect and try to come out on top, looking only at our personal gain and wellbeing. If we examined this from a greater good perspective, this debate could just as simply be played out through a game of chess, where the loser agrees to give up their side of the bargain just as if they had lost a war. Lives would be spared and the conflict will be resolved because we are willing to accept the results with our good nature. But this is not how we function. We will give up something only if we have no other choice and are overpowered. In Ostrom’s article, “tragedy of the unmanaged commons” she suggests that very idea that we need to be “managed” or overpowered by a greater force. Once we have no other choice, this is when we act with limitation. Our government for this reason has laws and manages us as a society.

  6. I would relate to the logic of the collective the most as well. A lot of groups I have worked in, have had this issue where just a couple people out of a larger group of 5 would give time and energy to the project while the others sat back and enjoyed the “free ride”. And I understand this nature of people, maybe because they are just lazy or don’t care to contribute, so I don’t bother with that and put in my best towards the priject. But what bothers me is when these “Free riders” just come in to group meetings to give their two cents about how the work is not going fine and tearing it apart but not making the effort to fix it.

    I also found myself agreeing to all three models Ostrom laid down. I heard about the prisoner’s dilemma for the first time and it gave me a very different perspective of the way a collaboration should work. Definitely, betraying the people you work with is not what collaboration is about. Self-interest also depends on the collective/common good. Sometimes when you get too “rational” that could land you in a fix.

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