Tuesday, November 06, 2007


In a past post I discussed the scenario described as the ‘tragedy of the commons’ which characterizes many environmental problems, especially problems of overuse and resource depletion. To review, the tragedy of the commons basically occurs when ‘individuals have unlimited access to resources in absence of well defined property rights ( Sobell and Leeson, 2006). Without property rights, there can be no transfer of rights and no market to establish a price by which environmental tradeoffs can be valued. The problem is the failure of government to define and enforce property rights.

The ‘tragedy of the anti-commons’ is another type of government failure. This occurs ‘when too many owners hold (such) rights of exclusion’ (Heller, 1998). In this case resources are subject to underuse. This can also be described as a ‘tragedy of political commons’ when too many individuals have veto power in decision making processes ( Leeson, 2006). And note, related to other posts regarding public choice theory, these individuals are acting in their own interest, face ineffective incentive structures, and likely have limited information. When they actually do make a decision, it is likely a poor one.

A prime example of the tragedy of the anticommons and resource under use is the government’s response to hurricane Katrina. Post 9-11, FEMA was placed under Homeland Security, adding an additional layer of bureaucracy to the decision making process. There were further problems at the local level. An example given in a 2006 article in the journal Public Choice describes an incident where one out of state sheriff complied with all of the necessary procedures and paper work that would enable him to direct his resources for a relief effort and was never able to help. A second sheriffs department ignored procedure and was able to bring 9 truckloads of supplies and 33 deputies to the scene.

We also see that in the private sector, where this problem is less of an issue, companies like Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and State Farm insurance were well prepared and on the scene where they were needed.

Because of the tragedy of the anticommons, resources that could have been used in the relief effort were underutilized.


Government’s Response to Hurricane Katrina: A public choice analysis
Public Choice Volume 127,numbers1-2/ April 2006
Russel S. Sobel and Peter T. Leeson

Heller, M. (1998). The tragedy of the anticommons.: Property in transition from Marx to Markets. Harvard Law Review, 111 930 622-688.

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