“What if Everybody Did That?” — The Tragedy of the Commons and Personal Responsibility

“What if everybody did that?”

Whenever somebody, a parent, teacher, or friend, told me that in response to some perceived transgression, the seeming lack of logic in this argument irritated me.

What should it matter what I do? If I don’t recycle (I actually do, but let’s say I don’t for the sake of the argument), everybody else won’t suddenly stop recycling too. It is absolutely true that the world would be a better place if everybody recycled. It’s also true that an average individual’s actions do not matter all that much. Even if I go completely waste-free, it wouldn’t make a significant dent in the global pollution problem.

Some people use the “what if” argument for ill-intentioned, cynical criticism. Imagine a child enthusiastically announcing “I want to be an entrepreneur!“. “If everybody was an entrepreneur, there wouldn’t be any people left to do the actual work“, a bitter adult replies. Of course, that’s true, and there wouldn’t be any doctors, farmers, or construction workers. But that’s now how the world works. It needs all sorts of people. It needs those who have vision, take risks and organize others around them. It needs leaders as much as people who grow food and treat diseases. Civilization is built on the specialization of labor, and diversity brings strength. But I digress, that’s a different issue.

There is a problem in economics called the tragedy of the commons. It’s a situation in which individuals, acting in their own self-interest overexploit a resource such that it ends up being exhausted for everyone. Classic examples are cows grazing on a shared field and fishing in public waters. A more modern example is road congestion: the more people decide to drive, the worse the traffic gets, which slows everybody down.

One example from my personal life is voting. I’ve voted in some elections and decided not to participate in others. The act of not voting does not use any finite resource in the classical sense, but it can be thought of using up social trust that’s a necessary component of participatory democracy. Clearly, if nobody voted all the time, democracy couldn’t exist. It is also a fact that an individual vote doesn’t matter. In national elections, even those that are considered close, are decided by a margin of tens or hundreds of thousands of votes. There are simply too many people in the world. I’m well aware that my vote won’t swing the election, and yet most of the time I, and most other people, still vote. Why?

When I vote, I do it for the feeling that I’m doing something that’s right and good for the country. Contributing to putting the right people in power, fulfilling a civic duty, or setting a good example. I have a certain illusion of control, a belief that I can make a difference, even though the rational part of the mind tells me that I cannot. That’s a cognitive bias that democracy exploits to compel ordinary people to cast their votes. There’s also peer pressure: if I see everybody around me proudly talking about who they’re voting for, I am less likely to stand out by not doing the same. And I believe it’s peer pressure that’s the key to understanding personal responsibility in these situations.

You are not only subject to peer pressure, you also exert it on others. If my neighbors see that I don’t put out recycling bags outside my house, they are more likely to not do it themselves. Then their neighbors see that and the influence cascades. Clearly, that kind of social pressure competes with pressure coming from others sources, such as the media and legal requirements, but it can be a powerful force.

For individuals in complete social isolation, whose actions are certain not to influence others, should feel free to not recycle or vote. But most of us are not so lucky. We necessarily influence others around us. Some people have more influence than others: politicians, celebrities, and public intellectuals can potentially affect the behavior of millions. They have the most responsibility to nudge people to act for the common good. But in the modern hyper-connected world, an individual with a Facebook account can be more influential than the top experts.

In the classic tragedy of the commons, if I limit how much grass my cows eat, while my competitors do not, I could go out of business watching them get more prosperous. Sometimes intervention from an authority is required to set legal limitations on resource exploitation. Perhaps voting and recycling should be enforced by the government. Perhaps not. But it’s worth thinking about how much influence on others our actions have. It can turn out more than we think.


Happy to have a conversation about these ideas. If you see any flaws in my thinking, do let me know.

Photo credit: Ales Krivec, Unsplash

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