[First posted on skepolitical.com on 5/6/12)

I’ve been neglecting posting on this blog, but I have been having an interesting discussion in the comments about the economics post and, specificially, about the tragedy of the commons. Here is my most recent comment. A real post will be forthcoming by the end of the week…

The “tragedy” is basically that, left to their own utility-maximizing devices, people will consume more of a “common good” than would be optimal for society. The question becomes: if we are interested in maximizing our society’s utility, what should we do?

As you (Marc) said, one possible answer is “enforce property rights and let the market work,” because to do anything more about it would be to infringe on people’s rights in a way that would be more deleterious to overall utility than any gains made in the consumption of that particular good. Perhaps this would be a libertarian’s view.

Another answer is “incentivize behavior that is better for the society.” This is usually assumed to be government “command and control,” as you put it, but it could also just be a socially-enforced norm. For example, in a small fishing society, anyone who fishes too much might be socially ostracized. This isn’t as feasible in a larger society, but if you manage to attach the baggage morality to certain actions, you can get people to do things like recycle of give to charity, so it doesn’t seem impossible that you could encourage better use of resources in certain situations. Indeed, some people are buying fuel-efficient cars despite their not being quite cost-effective. I see them on the road all the time.

How would you describe this encouragement of socially-conscious resource usage? It seems like the mainstream right-wingers (such as Fox News or Limbaugh) would be inclined to deride it as bleeding-heart liberal marxism, but it also comports with the libertarian ideal of relying on individual responsibility as opposed to government edict. (Both libertarians I personally know well place a very high value on their own behavior towards society and are very generous. My guess is that they are trying to live the ideal wherein people are good for goodness’s sake, circumventing the need for government regulation, which I certainly consider to be laudable.)

It seems to me that relying on people to simply do the right thing, as my libertarian friends seem to be doing, is not getting us very far. As society grows further and further away from the “fishing village” idea, the proportion of people willing to behave in a way that is socially responsible will naturally drop. Also, our society has already embraced the ideal of the market forces themselves being “good,” and it would be hard to bring society back around to really embrace socially responsible behavior. So, it becomes a cost-benefit question of whether enforcing such behavior and gaining the benefits of improved resource usage is worth the costs incurred by the enforcement (which include loss of complete freedom of members of society as well as more tangible costs like policing and litigating).

Does that sound right?