The Tragedy of the Commons — and of the Congress

Whatever else it may have done, Ross Perot’s campaign had the salutary effect of refocusing public attention on the problem of the federal deficit. Unfortunately, his belief that he could 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.

In a 1968 article entitled “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Garrett 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 used up more of the limited pasture. However, since each herdsman gains the full benefit of the extra cow for himself but shares the cost to 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 adds additional cattle until the pasture is destroyed. This is the tragedy of the commons.