Archive for the ‘cooperation’ Category

Evidence of ethical and inethical behavior among bacteria

January 15th, 2010 No comments

See Michael Gilberson, co-blogger with Lynne Kiesling at  Knowledge Problem, discussing recent research:  “Cooperation and cheating among bacteria“.

I think we are beginning to see that ethical issues, that is, “problems” of cooperation between individuals, permeates life, and that evolution and experience provide differing capabilities for cooperative behavior across the spectrum of life.

Humans, being the most “advanced” and self-reflective of life forms, are privileged to include fights over “property rights”  and “objective” universal moral codes, etc. among our daily battles over how to advance our personal interests.

[The post title is tongue-in-cheek, obviously, but the study of the why and wherefor of cooperation is a serious matter, indeed. Perhaps it is the underlying theme of this blog.]

Bruce Yandle on the tragedy of the commons, evolution of cooperation & property, and the struggle against government theft

November 20th, 2009 No comments

[I note that this is one of my earlier Avatar-themed posts. 2010/02/15]

I`ve often referred to Bruce Yandle, a “free-market environmentalist” who is dean emeritus and Distinguished Professor of Economics Emeritus at Clemson University`s College of Business & Behavior Sciences, Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Economics at the Mercatus Center, a faculty member with George Mason University’s Capitol Hill Campus, and a Senior Fellow at PERC – the Property and Environment Research Center (a free-market environmentalism think tank which has great links to his many works).

I`d like to draw attention attention to one short paper by Yandle which I find insightful in providing a perspective on the evolution of prperty rights and problems with resource management which arise from government owenership, even as he has short-shrifted the importance of community property mechanisms, which Nobel Prize-winner Elinor Ostrom has so extensively researched and documented (as I keep noting).

Yandle`s paper, The Commons: Tragedy or Triumph?, was published by the Foundation for Economic Education in its April 1999 online edition of Freeman. Here are few portions (emphasis added):

The feeder is a commons, but not just for hummingbirds. Bees are
attracted to it as well, and oddly enough, they can drive off the
larger hummingbirds. So even if the dominant bird is able to deflect
competition from other members of the species, that is not enough to
protect the nectar, and the defense itself is costly in energy burned.
The feeder contents are never secure.

Hummingbirds have no way to stake a claim to the feeder. So far as
we can tell, hummingbird communities have no constitution that reflects
socially evolved rules for establishing a social order. Most likely, a
long process of adaptation and selection has generated a hummingbird
capable of living in a world where nourishment is a common-access
resource, a commons. Hummingbirds live a life of flight, engaging in a
constant search for nourishment to feed their high-energy lives and, at
times, fighting for temporary control over valuable resources.

Human Commons

We all know the tragedy of the commons story. Wonderfully written
by Garrett Hardin in 1968, the highly stylized rendering is about a
pasture devoid of rules, customs, or norms for sharing.[1]
It is open to all comers. In this never-never-land, shepherds logically
add sheep to their flocks as long as doing so adds an increment of gain
for the particular flock. Uncoordinated in their effort, and unaware of
the effects of their individual actions on others, the unconcerned
shepherds collectively destroy the pasture. What could be a story of
plenty, if only the shepherds understood, turns into a story of
poverty. The passive shepherds are like hummingbirds. [Yandle has this wrong; Hardin posits competing shepherds who don`t talk w/ each other,and so look after only their narrow self-interests.]

As Hardin artistically puts it: “Therein is the tragedy. Each man
is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without
limit—in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which
all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that
believes in freedom of the commons.”

Garrett Hardin’s words beautifully bundle aspects of an endless
human struggle to form communities, accumulate wealth, and improve
well-being. With that phrase—tragedy of the commons—the essence of the
challenge hits us squarely between the eyes: When there are no property
rights—formal or informal—that limit use of a scarce natural resource,
human action leads inevitably to untimely resource depletion and

But people are not hummingbirds. People can build institutions that
take the edge off frantic commons behavior. People have unwritten and
written constitutions that help to establish social order. People can
and do accumulate wealth. People communicate, invent lines of kinship,
and develop customs, traditions, and rules of law that limit
anti-social behavior. People define, enforce, and trade property
rights. People can and do avoid the tragedy of the commons. Indeed,
instead of living with tragedies, people triumph over the commons. But
the triumphs are never perfect or complete. There is always another
commons to manage.

The Ascent of Man

I wish to put forward the notion that encounters with the commons
form the fundamental stimulus that yields, instead of tragedy, what we
today call civilization.
The ascent of man from a primitive existence
with no wealth accumulation to life as we know it is fundamentally a
story about triumph over, not tragedy of, the commons. Let me explain.

Our very existence as human beings is defined by evolved
institutions for avoiding tragedies. We have names, which serve the
economic purpose of identifying us as parties to contracts and
agreements. Those names, first and last, form webs of communication
that reduce the social cost of assigning responsibilities and
liabilities. They enhance truth-telling and promise-keeping; they raise
the cost of engaging in anti-social behavior. They limit a tragedy of
the commons.

We have abstract symbols of ownership—deeds, titles, and
contracts—that define spheres of autonomous behavior. We speak of our
homes, our cars, our clothes, our families, and our pasture. Even
language has evolved to provide a possessive form that accommodates
triumph over the commons.

We write and observe contracts, wills, and marriage agreements that
define relationships, identify turf, and conserve wealth. We accept
evolved bodies of law and law-enforcement activities to assure the
integrity of our agreements. We carry papers that enable us to acquire
property, extinguish debt, cross borders, drive vehicles, and
communicate effectively with strangers. And we have locks, keys, walls,
fences, brands, and encryption devices, all this in an effort to avoid
a tragedy of the commons.

Property rights define who we are and what we have. Property rights
guard others from our unwanted advances and prevent us from
contributing to a tragedy of their commons.

Avoiding a tragedy of the commons is costly. The benefits must be large. …

The tragedy is found where for reasons having to do with power,
intolerance, or cost, human beings have not yet defined private
property rights. Or, as we shall see, where evolving property rights
encouraged by man the institution builder have been destroyed.
What was
once a triumph can become a tragedy. …

What about fisheries? How can we avoid a tragedy of the commons
there? Long before the Europeans arrived on the scene in the Pacific
Northwest, Native Americans had figured it out. Small tribes in what is
now Washington State had salmon fishing rights.
Don Leal tells us that
“in some cases, the tribe owned the rights; in others, families or
individuals or a combination owned the rights.”[5]

And what happened when the Europeans arrived? You guessed it. Leal
tells the story this way: “Instead of recognizing the well-defined and
enforced fishing rights, the U.S. government allowed newcomers to place
nets across the mouth of the Columbia. This quickly depleted salmon
runs, so traps and weirs were banned—only to be replaced by purse seine
boats powered by internal combustion engines. The race to catch salmon
moved to open waters. Ironically, from the country where private
property is considered sacrosanct came a socialistic legal system
driven by politics and military power.”[6]

What had been private property was turned into a commons. What had been
an institution-builder triumph became a political tragedy. …

For centuries before anyone in the United States thought much about
environmental quality, our common law defined and protected the
environmental rights of ordinary people.[10]
Enforced by judges in courts across the land, common law protected the
right of downstream property owners to receive water and air in
undiminished quality for reasonable use.
At common law, rivers could
not be treated as open sewers if doing so imposed costs on downstream
rightholders. Industrial plants could not blow smoke and emissions onto
the land and property of ordinary people. The record is filled with
cases, here and in Canada, decided under English common-law traditions:
where farmers sued industrial plants and won; where citizens of one
state sued polluters in another state, and won; and where common-law
judges ordered polluters to clean up or shut down. There are also cases
where this did not happen, where judges turned away from
property-rights enforcement and behaved as policy makers. But when the
judges got it wrong, their decisions affected a small number of people,
not an entire nation. [I note Walter Block disagrees strongly and views this change in common law as leading to the rampant pollution that set the stage for federal legislation.] This, of course, changed with the advent of

Prior to the passage of federal pollution-control statutes, every
major city in the United States had taken steps to define public
property rights to air quality. Many states, including California, had
taken a river-basin approach to the management of water quality, this
in addition to the use of common law. Multi-state compacts were
forming. By the 1960s, environmental quality was improving rapidly in
many locations. The property rights institution builders were on their
way to avoiding a tragedy of the commons. Common law was converting the
commons to private property.

This was changed with the passage of federal legislation that
effectively nationalized air and water quality in the United States.
What was becoming private property was made public property, almost a
commons. The new system of command-and-control regulation allowed
polluters to operate legally if they had a permit. With permits in
hand, new polluters could enter already crowded river basins. The new
regime provided political access to industries and municipalities that
hoped to postpone the day of reckoning in common law courts.

This work sheds light on mankind’s struggle to avoid the tragedy of
the commons. It tells us that at very low levels of income, what might
be called stage one, human beings cannot afford to do much about
property-rights enforcement and the commons. They live in a world where
custom and tradition sustain them. As incomes rise and losses from the
commons expand, stage two is entered. Fences go up, and rules are set
for protecting the commons. Finally, in stage three, markets evolve
along with rules of law that define spheres of private and public
action. Private rights replace public control, and the triumph replaces
the tragedy of the commons.

[Yandle ignores government mismanagement here, and how Western markets and Westernized leaders have seamrollered native institutions.]

Life for mankind began on a commons where tragedies were
commonplace and the incentive to improve was powerful. Out of the
struggle to survive and accumulate wealth evolved markets, property
rights, and the rule of law—a triumph on the commons.

But just as bees compete with hummingbirds in the struggle to
control access to nectar, institution builders who seek to support
markets and property rights compete with others who seek to
redistribute wealth. Actions to redistribute wealth blunt the incentive
to protect property rights and create wealth. This converts triumph to