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commons dilemma


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A type of resource dilemma interpreted as a problem of overgrazing on a common pasture, illustrated by the following simple example. Three farmers each own a single cow weighing 1,000 kg and have access to a common that can sustain a maximum of three cows without deterioration. They all want to increase their wealth by adding a further cow to the common, but for each additional cow on the common the weight of every cow decreases by 200 kg. If one farmer adds a cow, then that farmer's personal wealth increases from 1,000 kg (one 1,000 kg cow) to 1,600 kg (two 800 kg cows); if two farmers add a cow each, then the wealth of each increases from 1,000 kg to 1,200 kg (two 600 kg cows); and if all three add a cow each, then the wealth of each decreases from 1,000 kg to 800 kg (two 400 kg cows), and each farmer is poorer than if each had acted cooperatively by not adding a further cow to the common. It is always in a farmer's individual self-interest to acquire an additional cow, whether or not one or more of the others does so, but if they all pursue individual self-interest in this way, then each ends up poorer than if they all cooperate, which means that the problem is a social dilemma. [So called because of a reference in 1833 in an essay on population growth by the English economist William Forster Lloyd (1795–1852) to the ‘tragedy of the commons’—the overgrazing of the commons in 14th-century England, which led to the enclosures and the eventual disappearance of many of the commons]

Subjects: Psychology.


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