Royal Society report

This really doesn\’t bode well. While they\’ve a very good economist on the panel; (Sir Partha Dasgup[ta, who really does know what he\’s talking about) they\’ve also got Johnny Porritt who would put all into full body condoms.

An example of misunderstandings:

Many resources are subject to collective action
problems: if each actor pursues what is in his or
her short-term interest, things will go much less
well than if all agree to abide by rules that are in
the common interest. Collective action problems
are sometimes thought to arise inevitably from
common ownership of resources, but this is not
the case. Hardin (1968), in coining the phrase
the “tragedy of the commons” assumed that
common ownership of physical resources such
as fields and lakes is problematic because it will
be in the interest of each to consume more of
the resource than is sustainable. Thus, on
Hardin’s analysis, shepherds will tend to
overgraze a field which is held in common, as
each shepherd seeks to ensure that he or she
has as many sheep as possible, and that each
sheep is well-grazed. If all (or most) shepherds
behave in this way, then the commons will
become overgrazed, and its ability to support
sheep will soon be destroyed.

However Hardin was mistaken to assume that
all commons are open access, and can be used
by anyone without control or rules. Almost
all commons are closed access, with distinct
rules and norms. Closed commons are and can
be regulated in such a way that they can be
successfully protected and sustained. (Ostrom
1990). Nonmaterial goods, such as knowledge,
which are also vital for human wellbeing, are
not subject to scarcity and can be provided
for all without being in any way degraded
(Wilson 2012).

That just isn\’t what Hardin said.

What he did say is that open access commons, where demand is greater than capacity for renewal, would face such tragic problems. Therefore, as demand rises and Marxian (his phrase) access is no longer viable therefore there has to be some form of restriction of access. Which can be social (socialist) or private property (captialist, again, his descriptions) in form.

Quoting Ostrom doesn\’t invalidate his point: she has studied (very well and very interestingly) extant commons. Which gives us survivorship bias. Those commons still exist because they have access managed and thus haven\’t been wiped out by open access.

Hardin could be disproved by showing that all commons everywhere all the time have been successfully so managed: but the non existence of the passenger pigeon, the near extinction of the American buffalo would, the exticntion in fact of the magafaiuna just as human beings turn up would militate against that idea.

That currently extant commons are managed can be taken as a proof of Hardin, not a refutation. Because, you know, he said that in order to continue to exist they must be managed?

20 comments on “Royal Society report

  1. Another way of looking at it is game theory. Imagine the commoners as playing prisoner’s dilemma. If it’s a one-off, it’s rational to defect. (Overgraze.) But it’s an iterated PD, where the prisoners / commoners quickly learn to cooperate. Thus they do not in practice overgraze the commons because they make informal arrangements among themselves.
    There are cases of over-exploitation, famously where populations are exploding but are still so poor they are using firewood for cooking. But most commons aren’t like this. There are probably more commons which are underexploited. Alpine pastures, where not everyone with rights to grazing has cows, is an example. British woodlands are almost all under-coppiced and under-pollarded.
    The tragedy of the commons is probably the exception rather than the rule. And on closer examination many of these “commons” turn out to be non-renewable resources anyway, so the rate of exploitation would make no difference to the end result. Examples: peat extraction or small scale coal mining in the Forest of Dean.

  2. I suspect that most commons were “stinted” so each commoner (their numbers of course were highly regulated since they were typically identified as occupiers of particular houses) was entitled to only limited use – he could graze (say) one cow, two sheep, three geese, or what have you. I have seen references to unstinted commons falling into poor condition, but can’t give you an example. In England commons were usually managed by a Manor court, which isn’t an informal arrangement, quite the contrary. Sometimes, I have read, that court would be dominated by the landowner (a Lord of the Manor, a Prior …) sometimes by the land users (the commoners). I don’t know how often the landowner had commoners’ rights himself. His typical landowner’s rights included mineral rights and the right to all timber (as distinct from wood).

  3. Dearieme, I stand corrected. Manorial Courts did indeed act as a backstop to “stint”.
    But the remarkable thing is how rarely they had to act. In an age when you could get transported for stealing a handkerchief, manorial judgements were rare and imposed piffling fines which were rarely paid.
    So my point about informality still stands, I think.

    On the general “commons” point. Slaughtering buffalo and cutting down the Amazon rain forest is better described as plain vanilla theft than a “tragedy”.

    The “tragedy” of overfishing, exhibit N0. 1 for the Hardin folk, is a bit more complex. Could an insane and obscene subsidy regime have anything to do with it, I wonder?

  4. To affirm the above:
    Some old parish records, I saw, seemed to be dealing with charges for drovers grazing their charges on the village ‘common land’ which implies it was managed, at least for that village. And ownership of a house that was built on land once part of Epping Forest seemed to confer all sorts of rights to grazing, taking of wood etc. From ‘rights’ one can infer these amenities were restricted.
    On a related issue, it’s worth considering the ‘public footpath’ that might run across a farmer’s land from a hamlet to the village church would only have been used by the inhabitants to go to church. That’s a whole world of difference from some modern rambler considering it a ‘right of way’ to traipse over crops.

  5. “The “tragedy” of overfishing…Could an insane and obscene subsidy regime have anything to do with it, I wonder?”

    Could well be. But the overfishing of the Solway was done in my youth i.e.before our entry into the “Common Market”.

  6. Could you give us a steer-link to the Solway overfishing, Dearie?
    I’m sure the tragedy of the commons is real. I also suspect it’s much rarer than the Hardinistas and the socialistas suggest.

    BiS hits the nail on the head. It’s a question of neighbours. He’ll no doubt be able to show that the closer to the crime is the court, the more lenient the sentence. Moving to the city has risks.

  7. blokeinfrance (#1) said “British woodlands are almost all under-coppiced and under-pollarded”

    I don’t think that’s related, as most woodland is privately owned rather than common (if we count the Forestry Commission, the National Trust and various wildlife charities as private).

    The lack of coppicing is more simple economics – low value vs high transaction costs.

    Growing wood is of very low value; the value comes from cutting, ageing and chopping or shaping it. So the amount one would offer to pay for coppicing rights is low.

    For the landowner, the costs of granting coppicing rights is higher than the rent to be collected.

    Costs include fear of legal liability for accidents, or that the coppicer may be hard to evict in the future, or loss of inheritance tax agricultural exemptions. Even if those fears are unfounded, the legal fees to get comfort would be higher than the rent.

    There’s also a principal-agent issue, with most estates managed by an agent and it’s not worth his while.

    More legitimate is the alternative value of the woodland for game rearing and shooting; although game and coppicing can easily co-exist, again there is a fear that they won’t.

    So not, I think, a commons issue; more a problem of a legal system that does not enforce property rights in a simple, predictable and cheap manner.

  8. Sorry, that was long and not very relevant. But I’ve been trying to rent a couple of patches of unused woodland recently, and run up against a blank wall with both estate and farm.

  9. Richard
    You’re right, woods have fallen silent in both human and wildlife terms since it became uneconomic to farm them, which usually meant coppicing. It’s one of my little personal games when walking through woods to try and work out when they were last used, a minimum of fifty years is usually about my guestimate.

  10. The best thing that has happened to woods, in the south of England at least, in the last generation or so is the great storm of 1987. This did no end of good in opening up the canopy and creating dead wood habitat, the misguided attempts to repair the ‘damage’ did more harm than good.

  11. Coppicing, somewhere for the children to build treehouses, and ideally a bit of rough shooting and rabbiting (although the latter is even less likely; sporting rights would be retained by the owner).

  12. I don’t know of a link, bloke, I just know that the trawler catches of flatfish and (especially) shrimp fell so far that families either gave up fishing or bought bigger boats and went fishing in the Firth of Clyde and further afield. My own contribution to this sad state of affairs was pretty modest – a schoolboy summer – but I admit to having been a guilty party. Still, is was worth it to have taken the helm of a trawler. So there!

  13. Here’s a link to a book
    http://www.bookscumbria.com/cgi-bin/trolleyed_public.cgi?action=showprod_2586

    Here’s a quotation: “Even the fishing is disappearing. In 1896 Annan could boast a fleet of 51 shrimp trawlers, … a wee bit before my time] In 2000 Annan was home for only three shrimp trawlers… Within three years they had disappeared as well.” I don’t know what became of the trawler I helped build as a lad. My skill with a caulking iron is redundant I fear.

  14. blokeinfrance – “The “tragedy” of overfishing, exhibit N0. 1 for the Hardin folk, is a bit more complex. Could an insane and obscene subsidy regime have anything to do with it, I wonder?”

    You don’t need the quotes around tragedy. The main culprit was the Soviet fleet. Which for all its faults did not get EU subsidies. They simply ignored international agreements on catches for things like cod – and above all for whales.

  15. Richard (12)
    You want to do a bit of coppicing, eh?
    One reason you might be getting nowhere with the owners is because (ahem) they don’t actually own the coppicing rights, which would be reserved for the villagers. Said villagers don’t excercise their rights nowadays, because as Thornavis points out, there is under-exploitation as well as over- exploitation and they can’t be bothered. So the landowner keeps schtum.

    But charcoal burning still goes on, even if it’s often got to be subsidised:
    http://lincstrust.org.uk/conservation/article.php?id=3

    Richard, why don’t you just offer to buy a wood? Woodland is poor soil (that’s why they’re woods not fields) so should be going cheap.

  16. Many thanks everyone for reading me maundering on.

    The reason I get heated about the Commons is that it is a central plank in the AGW world government schtick. The more “tragedies” you can point to the better the argument for expropriating our rights and our votes to Brussels or the IPCC.

    But with admitted exceptions (see above) the commons generally do survive well managed. So we don’t need to have our rights stolen, thanks.

  17. blokeinfrance, the estate won’t sell land. Especially low-value woodland. It’s a cultural thing.

    But interesting that I might already have coppicing rights as a villager; it is old manorial land. Thank you; I shall have to investigate.

    In the meantime I’m keeping the fires burning by stealing fallen timber, but I’d rather get it on a proper basis.

  18. As I understand it, it’s not necessarily enough to live in a village: not every inhabitant was a commoner. It usually turned on the house you lived in, I believe.

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