Last week, Shankar Vedantam wrote a Washington Post column titled, "Clinton, Obama and the Narcissist's Tale." It appeared yesterday under a different Star Tribune headline, "Democrats face a classic 'tragedy of the commons.'" One emphasizes the self-absorption required of politicians; the other highlights its effects.
I'm more interested the commons metaphor and how it relates beyond the current presidential race because I think it helps define the great dividing line of our time. Parties and candidates have clustered at the poles of the real divisions among us — whether to value the big picture over the short run and place collective interest on at least a par with self-interest.
Vedantam invokes the tragedy of the commons to explain the dangerous trap of this "fault line" between individual and collective interest:
Individuals embroiled in similar dilemmas find them impossible to solve on their own, because they are confronted by a Hobson's Choice: Act selfishly and cause collective disaster, or act altruistically and aid someone else who is acting selfishly. Either way, selfishness wins.
"The way the system is set up, the more-selfish person has a higher probability of winning," social psychologist W. Keith Campbell said of the Democratic primary. "You end up with the more narcissistic, belligerent candidate."
He cites an experiment by Campbell in which volunteers were tasked as timber companies to manage a forest in perpetuity.
[Since] the volunteers did not know whether their kindness would be reciprocated by others or exploited by competitors, people raced to cut as much timber as they could and quickly razed the forests to the ground. Groups with volunteers more willing to think about the collective good preserved their forests longer. But selfish people within these groups had a field day exploiting the altruists — and the forests perished anyway.
Much of the conflict in the public domain mirrors this dynamic. Free market vs. government regulation. Energy development vs. conservation. The individual or family vs. the collective. The castle vs. the commons.
Government and other social institutions, especially religion, have developed to regulate or redirect behavior from the destructive effects of selfishness. But Reaganism has led an all-out assault on the notion of "the commons," associating it with failed socialist states instead of with managing, in Jedediah Purdy's* phrase, "the things that we cannot avoid having in common and whose maintenance or neglect implicates us all." That is, the legal system, the economy, public health and the natural world to name a few.
The attack on the commons has been prosecuted against and through those very institutions charged with keeping it — school boards, churches, local governments and federal agencies — abetted by think tanks, pundits and pollsters who retail to the public simpleminded formulations of complex problems and then pretend to discover them as the will of the people.
Public opinion, Purdy says, "has become shorthand for uninformed attitudes dignified by statistical aggregation." And the "Public," he says, is increasingly defined in Libertarian terms to be whatever government provides to people who are too lazy or weak to get a share of the "Private."
Although unregulated behavior can be modeled and the consequences predicted, before they will act, cultures of heightened self-interest demand proof, which practically means collapse of fisheries or financial systems. In Garrett Hardin's term, "intrinsic responsibility" can be clearly grasped when an act is straightforward and the consequences are immediate. But those who most loudly espouse personal responsibility and accountability for actions rarely see their own complicity in causing harm when the effects are indirect — through consumption, financial manipulation, disinvestment or discrimination.
We cannot and should not legislate away self-interest, but neither can we blithely continue to grow population, consume energy and amass wealth as if we were the planet's sole occupants — or, alternatively, as if we all have our own personal savior waiting in the wings.
Until we learn to see the systems we live within, we contribute to their ruin. And even then...
* I could've sworn I'd written before about Jedediah Purdy's book, For Common Things, but apparently not. (Naturally, libertarians didn't like it; nor did Caleb Crain. But here's another view that there are worse sins than being privileged, earnest and young.)