Sunday, 21 November 2010

Go on put another sheep on the common...

My last post was about fisheries, a resource that is held in common between people and used for many different things. The issue with holding a resource in common is not a new problem.

We used to have many commons all over the country where people could raise their livestock. In a feudal system of economics the common was vital to the infrastructure of small villages and towns, people could not afford to own land and hence land was placed in common and used by the people. People soon realised there were a few problems, as when you are sharing a resource with others you are all in direct competition. If I want to get maximum return out of the land I should use it as quickly and fully as possible. I should cram as many of my hungry sheep onto the common even if that would mean everyone else looses out.

Now if you live in a small village and everyone only has one sheep this isn't a problem, there is plenty of grass for all. In the early 16th century land owners started to realise that they had lots of sheep and didn't particularly like sharing space with their underlings. It was during this time that much historical common land was enclosed and essentially returned to the rich and powerful. We have reclaimed some of this land as time has gone by but a good deal of common land has been lost in the dingy past.

The tragedy of the commons is a great cause of concern to many of a philosophical bent. To make everything free and available to all seems ethically wonderful. Yet, everyone then struggles and competes viciously for limited resources and harms the very resource in the first place. Make people own it exclusively and then the whole problem of rich versus poor and dominant versus weak begins! It seems we are trapped between two tragedies an open access scramble in which everyone looses equally and a vicious contest in which some win, but others loose in a very big way.

It is interesting to note that the idea of contest and scramble competition has been extensively analysed in relation to animal foraging. Some small flour beetles (check these guys out below) will all share out flour roughly evenly as they all scramble to get food. Other very similar beetles will battle it out and the big strong ones will hoard all the flour while the little ones starve. This is essentially the same system that we use, in an open access resource we scramble, in our trade and business we have contest.

In nature the flour beetles that stubbornly stick to their feeding method have been shown to be a rare case. In many natural systems there is a degree of plasticity, if food is plentiful then scramble dominates and as resources become depleted then many animals shift to contest. This makes a good deal of sense, one more sheep on the green isn't a problem in the feudal village, the resource is not over exploited. When you only have a few good quality fish left in the sea then it makes more sense to shift to a more competitive system, people who own a resource tend to take care of it. The problem then becomes one of ownership, equality and access.

The real issue is that in an ideal world would we should be equitable and we would share resources evenly, everyone has rights of access and there is plenty for all. The great problems of capitalist societies and all of the misery found in them stem from imbalance and the domination of the weak by the strong. The only solution that gives equitable and ethical resource allocation is a scramble contest when the resource is not over taxed.

This is a key principle of Buddhist economics, the only way we can have sustainable fair systems is never to demand too much from our resources. We should reduce our demand, put less pressure on our supply. The aim should be efficient and fair use of resources, a moral incentive that will prevent us from putting one more sheep on the common, because when it comes down to it I don't necessarily need to put another sheep out there.

The flip-side of this is that increasing demand and requiring constant growth out of our fixed resources makes equitable scramble systems collapse. Our current economic concept of constant growth depletes resources and forces us towards contest competition. The more that the resource is demanded the more likely it is to be better managed by a few owners. The current economic system of growth does not raise people out of poverty as has been claimed, it makes it more likely that a few powerful individuals will own everything. This is a self reinforcing cycle and leads to an unethical distribution of resources and it is fundamental to our current economic model. At a very basic level our system makes the rich get richer, the poor get poorer.

We should be making our desires weaker and ask less of our planet. The man who desires less very literately has more to give to everyone else.

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