Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Liberal Liberty?

Sometimes I'm so naive I just amaze myself. I've been happily reading Brad DeLong for months and learning a lot about economics. This morning after checking Brad and Big Brass Blog and Science and Politics, as usual, I came to Environmental Economics which I found last weekend and posted on the sidebar here. EE has just posted the results of a reader survey showing that readers perceive the site to be just a tiny bit left of center. This will tell you more about the readers than the site in just a minute.

The first link under Env-Blogroll is A Better Earth. Okay, I should have been clued in by the subtitle "alternative approaches to environmental concerns." Perhaps even more so by the acknowledgement at the bottom of the page:

"aBetterEarth.Org is a project of the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University, a non-profit educational organization that promotes innovative thinking about how we can achieve a world that is peaceful, prosperous and free."

But I was sidetracked by the link near the bottom of the left-hand sidebar to the "Bunny Game." It's been a while since I've played an online game and I thought maybe this would be educational. And it was - though not so much in the way it was intended.

The game "tragedy of the bunnies" demonstrates (in the "public" version) that 30 bunnies are wiped out almost immediately by the greed of the three stakeholders. The "private" version goes on to demonstrate that if each of the three stakeholders is given ownership of 10 bunnies the population can be sustained - much to the advantage of everyone. The game went on to explain to me "The Tragedy of the Commons"

" ... a well-known phenomenon to environmentalists and economists. The phrase itself was penned by Garrett Hardin in his seminal 1968 article, "The Tragedy of the Commons."

As any economist will tell you, people respond to incentives. If there's a valuable resource lying about in a commons (picture a pizza at a frat party) people will try and grab as much of that resource as they can before the resource is depleted. This response is natural; it's an example of people responding to incentives. In other words, in a zero-sum game, you need to "get while the getting is good". The more other people get, the less there is for you.

Even if the resource is renewable (like a forest or an elephant population) the situation can turn into a zero-sum game. This is because while it may be in the community's interest to refrain from depleting the resource, it's still in each individual's interest to "get while the getting is good." Tragically, the very people who do act in the long-term public interest and refrain from depleting the resource end up getting nothing. Even more tragically, when a renewable resource is utterly depleted, no one benefits over the long-term. This is the tragedy of the commons."

Astonished by the one-sidedness of this explanation I followed a sponsor link to Institute for Humane Studies (I hesitate to provide links to all these places - suffice it to say the subtitle of this site is "Explore the ideas of Liberty...") and from there to (by now I'm getting the hang of interpreting sites with "Liberty" in the title) and from there to this article referring to "the tragedy of the commons."

Hmm... the author is a professor at Berkeley. Let's see if there's any connection to Brad DeLong. I search the site for Brad DeLong and get 167 hits, all of which, apparently, are about how wrong he is. Wouldn't I love to be a fly on the wall at those faculty meetings.

All this led me to a long investigation of the meanings of liberal and conservative (more on that tomorrow). And another in a long line of fruitless efforts to substantiate my sense that Democrats are smarter than Republicans. The only shred of evidence I've ever turned up is the oft-repeated data from the National Opinion Research Center at University of Chicago, General Social Survey, which shows Republicans have about half a year more formal education. Yet the fear of universities as dens of liberal iniquity persists. I'm confused.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ron Lee is certainly the smartest demographer I know. There are, however, a lot of things on econlib that are written by... other people...


Brad DeLong