Overgrazing Till the Cows Come Home

Whatever else it may do, Ross Perot’s re-entry into the race for President has had the salutary effect of refocusing public attention on the problem of the federal deficit. Unfortunately, Perot’s belief that he can solve the problem by presenting Congress with a detailed, realistic plan for balancing the budget is entirely without foundation. In the absence of a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget, any plan to curtail deficit spending is doomed to failure by the inner logic of our system of appropriations.

The nature of the problem was well-illustrated by environmentalist Garrett Hardin in his 1968 article titled “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Hardin described a pasture open to all upon which many herdsmen graze cattle. Each herdsman contemplates adding an additional cow to his herd. Each additional cow uses up more of the limited pasture. However, since each herdsman gains the full benefit of the extra cow for himself but shares the cost of the pasture with all the other herdsmen, it is in his best interest to add the cow. Since this holds true for each herdsman, each keeps adding cattle until the pasture is destroyed. This is the tragedy of the commons.