Children of the Commons

MSNBC commentator Melissa Harris-Perry‘s recent comment that we need to move away from the idea that our children are ours to the idea that children belong to the community has  proved to be more controversial than she, or anyone else at MSNBC, have anticipated, which shows that there is something terribly wrong at MSNBC.

Most conservative commentators have focused on the rather fascistic overtones of her remarks or have noted that public education is not, in fact, underfunded. I would like to tackle this subject from a different angle. I wonder if Melissa Harris-Perry is familiar with the concept of the tragedy of the commons.

The tragedy of the commons is a concept developed by Garrett Hardin in 1968. Put simply, it works something like this. Suppose there is a village in which every farmer has one cow which he grazes in the village commons. The number of cows that graze on the field is limited and the field is able to feed the cows. Now, suppose that one farmer decides to get another cow and let it graze on the common ground. He gets two cows to milk so he benefits more than his neighbors but two cows cost him no more than one. The presence of one more cow doesn’t hurt the green all that much. Then, other farmers decide to get another cow and put it on the green to graze. They get the benefits of having more cows to milk but their cost is no greater. However, as more cows are left to graze on the common field, at some point the field starts to become overgrazed and eventually what was once a fertile field becomes a barren, dusty wasteland.

The reason this happens is that while all of the farmers in the village benefit from the common field, it is no one person’s responsibility to maintain it. Each farmer gains the benefit of feeding his cows, whether he limits his number of cows or works to maintain the pasture and no one gains any extra benefit from doing the work of maintaining the field. Thus what is beneficial to each farmer individually, eventually ruins all the farmers in the village.

Garrett Hardin was an ecologist who was concerned about the problems associated with overpopulation and over use of natural resources. It is not easy to place him on any political or economic spectrum although he did favor government regulation as a means to resolve the tragedy and coercion to limit population. Environmentalists have used his analysis to justify restricting property rights for the common good. On the other hand, advocates of private property and the free market have pointed out that property and responsibility that belongs to everyone, really belongs to no one, and the best way to resolve the tragedy is through privatization of the commons. Human nature, being what it is, people are far more responsible for things that they feel personal ownership for, while common ownership property or a thing  means that no one person really feels they own it and so no one person feels really responsible for it, especially if they benefit from the use of it without the trouble of being responsible for it.

This is one of the reasons Communism didn’t work out so well. Consider Ivan, the worker at the collective farm. He didn’t own the farm, the fields or anything else at the farm. He did not benefit from the harvest and it made no difference to him if the crops rotted in the fields while he got drunk on vodka every afternoon. They weren’t his crops. They belonged to the people of the Soviet Union, so they really didn’t belong to anyone. Extend this sort of thinking over an entire national economy and you can see why there would be trouble.

With all of this in mind, we can revisit Melissa Harris-Parry’s statement that we need to get away from the idea that we personally own our children and are responsible for them and move toward an idea of community ownership of and responsibility for our children. If we make our children the responsibility of the village or the community rather than the responsibility of their parents, then the children will really be no one’s responsibility. Consider, as an extreme example to clarify matters, that there were a dystopian state that took children from their mothers at birth and raised them in institutions with trained caregivers attending to them. Does anyone truly believe that the children would be better off than if they were raised by their own parents? Melissa Harris-Perry has it backward. Children are more likely to be properly raised by parents who feel a sense of ownership and responsibility for them than by a village in which no one feels responsible for any one child. Indeed, it may be that part of the problem with public schools is precisely because they are public. No one really owns the public schools so no one is really responsible for the results of a public school education and no one feels any responsibility for spending the funding for public schools wisely.

The answer to the failure of the commons is not to create more commons but to privatize the commons as far as it is possible. If people have a stake in maintaining a continuing supply of a resource, they will see to it that the use of that resource is sustainable. It may be that the answer to the commons in education is greater privatization as a means of having the parents feel more that they are directly responsible for the state of their children’s education. In other words, we need to have more of a feeling of ownership of our children not less.



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