The Tragedy Of The Commons And Collective Action

1639 words - 7 pages

The tragedy of the commons and the problem of collective action are two key concepts in the world of political science. They act under the assumption that man is a rational being who will act in his own self interest. Humanity id broadly diverse meaning that each individual has their own ideas as to how society should run and how people should live.(heywood) This inevitably results in disagreement and this is where politics steps in. Aristotle described politics as the ‘master science’, ‘the activity through which human beings attempt to improve their lives and create the Good Society.’ Through the tragedy of the commons and the problem of collective action we can see how politics is essentially the ‘search for conflict resolution’ (heywood) and aims to create a cohesive society benefiting all.
Elinor Ostrom p186 goes so far as to say ‘The theory of collective action is the central subject of political science’ . The idea of collective action is essentially when a group of individuals with common interests work together to further those common interests benefitting all. Indeed problems of collective action permeate all aspects of politics, ranging from local neighbourhood level to international level.(ostrom) Collective action can be seen at work in international relations, public bureaucracies and also explains voting, lobby group formation and how citizens control their governments in a democracy (ostrom presidential) Cerny (site) states that ‘the state has been the key structural arena within which collective action has been situated and undertaken.’ However collective action can prove difficult for groups to achieve.
Individuals are assumed to act rationally and aim to further their own personal objectives. Man is assumed to be a short term utility maximiser. This is known as the rational choice theory Thus it would be assumed that groups of individuals with a common interest would act in such a way as to benefit the group as a whole as they themselves would in turn be better off i.e work together via collective action. However Mancur Olson (cite) states in his book that ‘rational self-interested individuals will not act to achieve their common or group interests.’ Coercion or other incentives are needed for this to occur. Communication can be used as moral suasion (ostrom) This became known as the ‘zero contribution thesis’.
A social dilemma is when individuals choose actions that will affect others as well as themselves. The individual will aim to benefit themselves short term which generally results in a lower joint outcome. If the individuals acted collectively they would achieve a better optimal outcome than the one they would achieve on their own. These social dilemmas have been characterised in game theory by the prisoners dilemma. They will achieve the Nash equilibrium which is lower than the socially desirable outcome. This is the problem of collective action. This is not to say that forms of collective action cannot be seen in...

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