Tragedy of the commons writ small

One might say that the path I took through school was a little out of the ordinary.  I went to private schools from K through getting my bachelors, only to go to a public school for my masters (and then back to a private school for my MBA).  I went to all Catholic schools for K12, even though I am an Episcopalian (and to anyone that isn’t either they may seem awfully close – trust me , they aren’t).  I went to all male schools for both high school and college (both of which are now co-ed).  One “normal” thing I did when I was in college was join a fraternity.
Despite my parents desires to have me wait until my sophomore year to rush, I went ahead and rushed my first year through (and what a rush it was…8 weeks!).  At the end I got bids from two of the eight fraternities on campus and accepted the one that I thought was the best fit for me.  Honestly it was one of the best decisions I made in my 4 years there – of course that’s not hard, since I made a lot of bad decisions ;-).  I moved into the house my sophomore year, lived in town in a house with 3 other brothers my junior year (all of whom were seniors – remember those bad decisions I mentioned earlier) and then moved back into the house for my senior year (that was maybe my second best decision).
The house sat on a few acres a few miles from campus.  It was supposed to have been an old orphanage, which makes sense since in addition to the main house that looked like it was built in the 20s there were a few more “institutional” buildings that looked to have been built in the 50s.  I would guess (and it is a guess) there were about 30-35 rooms in the main house and roughly 70 brothers that lived there when I was there (I understand that things have expanded since then and there are more than 100 living on the grounds now!).  On the first floor there was a common area and it was probably the most run down place in a pretty run down place (again, I hear that it’s much better now…but it’s still a fraternity house ;-).
The simple problem with the common area was that everyone owned it – which of course meant that no one did.  A classic example of the tragedy of the commons.  Not that our rooms were the penultimate of cleanliness, but you could always count on finding last night’s old pizza (or at least the box), some empty cans (no comment on what they used to contain…I didn’t turn 21 until 2 months before I graduated….no, I don’t remember that 2 months), and various articles of clothing (again…no comment).  There are many things I learned in my 4 years in the fraternity, but the problems with common property has stuck with me the most.
Since that time (almost 20 years ago now…remember, I am old), I’ve seen many more examples of common property degrading: the website that everyone gets to contribute to, but that no one is responsible for making great; the marketing message that everyone gets to have their say on, but that no one actually checks with customers about; and don’t get me started on office coffee (perhaps the perfect common tragedy).  I’m sure everyone has there own examples and I’m just as sure that all of those examples are about some piece of property: the website, the marketing message, the coffee, the lounge, the park, etc.  But I think there is a much larger, more pervasive tragedy of the commons that we all experience: the common ownership of you.
You probably don’t spend much time thinking about who owns you, but indulge me (especially if you have read this far) and spend the next 5 minutes finishing this up. In general all things (and you, at least your physical body, is a thing) can be owned only by one “person”.  I use the “quotes” since I do think that corporations can own things, but I don’t to get in to the whole citizens united debate here.  So no, I’m not saying that corporations are people, but I am saying that corporations can own things.  If you accept that you (at least your body) is a thing that can be owned, the natural question is who owns it?  You or someone else?
As I said, I don’t think many people spend a lot of time thinking about self ownership, but I do think they make or avoid decisions that lead them down a path of ownership by someone other than themselves.  The easiest way to answer the question I posed above (who owns you?) is the same way you would answer any question about ownership: who directs its use?  If you see the same person driving a particular car every day, at the exclusion of anyone else, you could reasonably assume that they own that car.  If you see someone planting a tree in the front of a house, you can reasonably assume that they own the land the tree is being planted on.  So who directs your actions?
It’s easy to say as an initial reaction “I do – of course I control me.  I’m the only one that can make me do anything – from getting up in the morning, to going to work to reading a book.  Of course I own me.”  But is that true?  Are you in sole possession of the decision about what you do?  I would argue for many of us, the answer is no.  We let marketers, police, our families, peer pressure, government, societal norms, and laws both limit our choices on one hand and force us to choose a specific path from those left available to us on the other.
This is not to say that basic principles should have no influence on what we decide to do- quite the opposite: the only way that self ownership works, for both the individual and for any group they should choose to be a part of, is if the individual has a clear and consistent set of principles.  Principles are something that the individual discovers, explores and internalizes so a decision made on principle (rather than law, societal norms, etc) are inherently self directed.  If I make decisions based solely on my own internal principles, I am demonstrating self ownership.
How many of the problems of today can be traced back to this fundamental lack of self ownership? Crime, obesity, fiscal issues, civil rights, foreign intervention – all could be solved if everyone involved did two things: First, if they accepted self ownership and stopped looking outside themselves for decisions or excuses.  And second, if they recognized everyone else’s right to self ownership.  Think about the your own “favorite problem” and then imagine if everyone involved did those two things and I bet you that it would get significantly better if not be resolved completely.
Next year will be my 20 year reunion and I do plan to head back and see the campus, go the football game and hang out at the frat house.  They might clean up the common room for the alumni (wouldn’t want us to trip on things with our walkers and canes), but in my minds eye I will be remembering what it looked like on any given weeknight when I lived there.  Or then again, maybe the common room will be no more – replaced by more sleeping rooms.  While getting rid of the common areas in the frat house would be a shame, doing the same things with ourselves would be a big step in the right direction.






2 responses to “Tragedy of the commons writ small”

  1. Dennis Kelley Avatar
    Dennis Kelley

    Nice thoughts – sorry we held you back from pledging but thought it was a good idea to get your feet on the ground first. The house was a bad decision , but you all lived through it.

    1. Chris Avatar

      You didn’t hold me back – I took it as a suggestion, not a requirement 😉

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