GAME ON–PART TWO

By JIM NICHOLS

The previous article ended with a suggestion that competition between humans has significant negative consequences; collaboration and cooperation are preferable. As usual, however, suggesting alternatives (collaboration and cooperation) requires identification of their inherent problems also. Working with one another rather than against one another is difficult to accomplish because of our competitive nature. Whether that nature is part of our basic humanity or taught to us by life, it still exists. This is a complicated topic and may be irritating to a reader, but I want to push on it a bit anyway.

Several decades ago, a writer posed a thought-question in the form of a hypothetical situation. Ten herdsmen shared a pasture; the pasture was common territory since there was no single owner. Each herdsman (we will assume these were all males) had ten animals in the fenced pasture. Thus, there were 100 animals on the pasture.

Herdsman #1 said to himself, “If I were to add an eleventh animal, that would be to my advantage. My original ten would have less to eat, of course, but I would have an almost 10 percent more profit from my additional animal since the negative effects are shared by the other nine herdsmen.” So, he put an eleventh animal in the pasture.

Herdsman #2 took notice of this and said to himself, “If I were to add an eleventh animal, that would be to my advantage. My original ten would have less to eat, of course, but I would have an almost 10 percent more profit from my additional animal since the negative effects are shared by the other nine herdsmen.” So, he also put an eleventh animal in the pasture.

This pattern of thought continued throughout the ten herdsmen and ended with each of them having eleven animals in the pasture, now containing a total 110.

Then herdsman #1 said to himself, “If I were to add a twelfth animal, my existing animals, admittedly, would have less to eat, but that negative effect would be shared and diluted by the other nine herdsmen while I would see a significant profit from my additional animal.” So, he put a twelfth animal in the pasture. 

Herdsman #2 reasoned in the same way, as did each of the other herdsmen and soon there were 120 animals on the pasture.

This thought-question poses the proposition that the herdsmen seem to be locked into a pattern of adding additional animals; the negative effects are shared with others, but the profits are personal. Until—the pasture is overgrazed and they are all out of business.

How could this eventuality be avoided? If they had foreseen this possibility, they could have cooperated with mutual restraint. However, mutual restraint has not been a feature of human existence, nor is it today.

Downtown merchants desire customers to park near their stores. There is a finite number of parking places in the downtown area. The storeowners, themselves, even have to park somewhere. The storeowners petition the city government to install parking meters that impose financial penalties on anyone who parks too long in one place. They are depending on the government to manage the available parking places. This occurs, frankly, by coercion since the effect of mutual restraint is limited. Posting signs reading, “Please do not park longer than an hour in any one space” did not work.

When you begin to think about all the things in life we share, this becomes a complicated concern. Why can I not drive as fast as I want on my street? Because there are others driving, walking, and playing on that street. We share that street. Apparently, we have willingly given up that right to drive fast. Furthermore, if we do not agree, a governmental entity (the police) will financially coerce us otherwise.

Once again, I realize I am venturing into almost un-American thoughts. What I do is, in fact, your business and vice-versa. It is interesting how we have given up our rights in many cases and yielded to legislation, but in other cases, we are intolerant of any infringement of our liberty.

Perhaps we are too concerned about our liberties in the world. Note how much in the news is argument is about “rights.” Life is not a zero-sum game. If we all seek help and work with others, we can all win.

More specifically, as Christians our true liberty comes from the grace of God and that we know we are loved and cared for eternally. This is much better than allowing ourselves to be managed only by coercive laws and taxing devices.

Original thought-question from Garrett Hardin, The Tragedy of the Commons, Science 162: 1243-1248. 1968.

Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current medical chaplain

 

 

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