Sunday, 21 March 2010

Tragedy of the commons - a problem and a solution

While watching the latest news on the passage of the health reform bill, I am having a conversation about a traveller community in southwest England. Some of the stories are about personalities, others about the institutional "structures" that have grown up - without the recognition of specific rules or laws, but simply the emergence of ways of doing things that are "enforced" by social norms.

This is very reminiscent of Elinor Ostrom's Nobel-winning work on the emergence of self-managing rules and structures within communities. These rules are most obvious in the management of common-pool resources such as fish stocks - where it's hard to establish, enforce or even design the classical economic solution of property rights. Without them, the tragedy of the commons soon destroys the fish stocks permanently. Communities in practice are surprisingly successful at establishing such norms for themselves.

But ironically, there's another level of tragedy of the commons among travellers. That is the selection of authorised sites on which they can live.

Currently in the UK, each region (there are ten across the country) agrees with its local and county councils how many sites they will make available for travellers to live in (in a document called the Regional Spatial Strategy). But the councils, under pressure from voters, are keen to negotiate down the number they must accept and push them into other areas.

According to this BBC article:
Labour MP Clive Betts, a member of the Communities and Local Government Select Committee, thinks that should change.
He told the BBC: "I think a lot of local authorities would welcome a statutory duty to have to do something because at least then they can go to their residents and say, 'we have to do something, let's find the best sites'."
As a matter of game theory that makes perfect sense - sometimes it is in the interest of players voluntarily to restrict their own freedom, because it changes the negotiating options of other players.

But instead, the Conservatives have a different proposal:
...such decisions should be made at a local level and that the Conservatives would scrap the Regional Spatial Strategy.
This policy is calculated to make the problem even worse. At a local level, the incentives faced by councils are very clear - more people will vote against a traveller site than for it. Many people who are quite willing to accept the principle that travellers should be able to live somewhere will not countenance the idea that it should be near them.

Perhaps politicians need to take some economics lessons from the people they are trying to regulate. Or perhaps they just need to admit that they'd rather let a minority of voters dictate policy than get some economic literacy.

1 comment:

patrice said...

Quite so!

In France, _all_ municipalities have a statutory duty to provide a place for travellers to camp, at least for 48hrs. Larger ones have a statutory duty to provide for more permanent grounds (with utilities). Of course many municipalities try (sometimes succesfully) to dodge these obligations.