The 15-Word Fix for Tragically Misguided Logic (Needism)

A key thought experiment, the "tragedy of the commons," is widely misunderstood, especially among certain kinds of economists. Elinor Ostrom won a Nobel Prize for showing how irrational they can be. 


This is diablog 7 between David Sloan Wilson (DSW, head of the Evolution Institute and author of Does Altruism Exist?) and me (JB).

1. JB: Humans basically can’t survive without cooperating (~economics) and sharing resources (~politics). Both of which risk a “rational” doom through “tragedy of the commons” thinking.

2. JB: Garrett Hardin popularized this rational parable of herdsman destroying a public pasture. Since “each ... seeks to maximize his gain,” and anyone can profit by adding cattle (grazing is free) everyone will, thus ensuring overgrazing and collective tragedy.

3. JB: But you’ve worked with Elinor Ostrom, who showed how groups commonly overcome Hardin’s mistaken logic. Can you explain his error and Ostrom’s work?

4. DSW: Hardin just ignored common social controls. Ostrom studied how real groups around the world manage their common resources, and derived eight design principles for avoiding overexploitation. Her findings — that groups can manage common resources without property rights or top-down regulation — so surprised economists that they awarded her (a little-known political scientist) the 2009 Nobel Prize.

5) DSW: My related collaboration showed that the evolutionary dynamics of cooperation in all social species map nicely onto Ostrom’s principles. Groups can only work well if they suppress disruptive self-serving behaviors (e.g., by using social controls to prevent overuse of common resources).

6) DSW: Ostrom’s work on modern group collaboration converges with Boehm’s work on the genetic evolution of human teamwork. And the Evolution Institute has created online resources (called PROSOCIAL) to help any group use Ostrom’s principles.

7) JB: Ostrom’s work illustrates how unrealistic and unrational economist-style thinking can sometimes be. Hardin’s herder scenario was first used (~1830) to counter “invisible hand” beliefs, by showing how self-interest could create bad outcomes (see spontaneous disorder). Harding later said that it’s only in an “unmanaged” commons that self-interest and freedom “brings ruin to all.”

8) JB: No prudent community can allow freedom to create foreseeable collective doom. And mislabeling as “rational” what’s predictably self-destructive actively courts tragedy.

9) JB: Surely pitting self-interest against collective self-preservation is stupid and irrational. Especially in markets (~the most powerful social forces on earth) self-maximization must be prevented from becoming systemically self-destructive.

10) JB: Here’s the logic needed to rescue rationality from Harding’s hard-of-thinking herder mentality, in 15 words:

Know your needs. Don’t damage what supplies them. Don’t let others either — or you’re doomed.

Communities either heed that logic of “needism,” or they perish.

 

For the next post in this diablog series, click here (Is Economics Built On A "Monumental Mistake?").

Earlier diablogs covered: (1) evolution’s score keeping (relative fitness), (2) its built-in team aspects, (3) its self-destructive competitions, (4) its blind logic, (5) how division of labor complications, and (6) why economics needs a version of evolution's "inclusive fitness."

Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions

A still from the film "We Became Fragments" by Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller, part of the Global Oneness Project library.

Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Stories are at the heart of learning, writes Cleary Vaughan-Lee, Executive Director for the Global Oneness Project. They have always challenged us to think beyond ourselves, expanding our experience and revealing deep truths.
  • Vaughan-Lee explains 6 ways that storytelling can foster empathy and deliver powerful learning experiences.
  • Global Oneness Project is a free library of stories—containing short documentaries, photo essays, and essays—that each contain a companion lesson plan and learning activities for students so they can expand their experience of the world.
Keep reading Show less

What the world will look like in the year 250,002,018

This is what the world will look like, 250 million years from now

On Pangaea Proxima, Lagos will be north of New York, and Cape Town close to Mexico City
Surprising Science

To us humans, the shape and location of oceans and continents seems fixed. But that's only because our lives are so short.

Keep reading Show less

Sooner or later we all face death. Will a sense of meaning help us?

As a doctor, I am reminded every day of the fragility of the human body, how closely mortality lurks just around the corner.

Photo by Alex Boyd on Unsplash
Personal Growth

'Despite all our medical advances,' my friend Jason used to quip, 'the mortality rate has remained constant – one per person.'

Keep reading Show less

3 mind-blowing space facts with Neil deGrasse Tyson

Tyson dives into the search for alien life, dark matter, and the physics of football.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: 3 mind-blowing space facts | Big Think | dotcom
Videos
  • Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson joins us to talk about one of our favorite subjects: space.
  • In the three-chaptered video, Tyson speaks about the search for alien life inside and outside of the Goldilocks Zone, why the term "dark matter" should really be called "dark gravity," and how the rotation of the Earth may have been the deciding factor in a football game.
  • These fascinating space facts, as well as others shared in Tyson's books, make it easier for everyone to grasp complex ideas that are literally out of this world.
Keep reading Show less
Scroll down to load more…