The PPE group engages in weekly conversations with diverse points of view in an effort to deepen our understanding of the intersection between politics, philosophy, and economics
This week in the Philosophy, Politics, and Economics reading group, we read and discussed The Welfare State as a Fiscal Commons: Problems of Incentives Versus Problems of Cognition by Keith Jakee and Stephen Turner. The article discussed the similarities between the tragedy of the commons and federal entitlement programs. We also read and discussed “Governing the Budgetary Commons” What Can We Learn from Elinor Ostrom? On the discussion board, the conversation center around two main topics: the role of analogy in solving real life problems and the applicability of a commons framework when thinking about the federal budget.
Click “continue reading” for a selection of our conversation.
Analogy & Application
Even the notion of a budgetary commons as an assurance game has its flaws, such as how even if some individuals may be willing to concede to long-term sustainability efforts if they are assured others will, some people may still use the opportunity to exploit the commons. There is no perfect analogy, and so perhaps to protect against application errors, we must be avoid applying analogies to real life where it becomes much more complex.
However, even that proposal has its obvious problems. Following some sort of guidelines/analogy seems natural and necessary to the extent that it functions as a basis for the rules we set. Analogies are a reflection of our understanding of a situation, and are a natural progression to developing policy. When we come up with analogies we don’t think they are grossly incomplete. We develop them because we think it helps us understand a situation a bit more.
Kenneth Burke describes what he labels terministic screens that are a way we construct a linguistic grounds for decision making. How we describe an act also determines the course of action we take. If we determine an act is a crime versus a prank those two labels insight very different outcomes.
What I think Raudla and Ostrom touch on so well is that labels matter. Attaching the terministic screen of ‘prisoners dilemma’ or ‘tragedy of the commons’ to the fiscal or budgeting commons carries significant weight. The actions required for mitigating or repairing issues stemming from ‘prisoners dilemma’ versus that of an ‘assurance game’ are incredibly different. If we apply solutions of a ‘prisoners dilemma’ to something more akin to an ‘assurance game’ we get skewed or even negative results.
The problem I see with this discussion is that we have to start somewhere. If we don’t take a particular viewpoint seriously and work on understanding that, then we really haven’t started. It is fine to say that a particular framework might not be the best, but then we have to have a better alternative. I would hesitate to take seriously anyone who criticised a point of view without offering something that would get that person closer to their goal.
It is good to compare rival models. Hopefully, they share something in common which would make any critiques immanent and not merely transcendent. The later of these critiques denies any substantial overlap between two perspectives.
Is a “commons” the proper analogy when thinking about budgets?
One of the issues I find in comparing the natural commons to budgets is due to the fact that, as Raudla notes on page 142 of the reader, 210 of the text, “herders” on the budgetary commons cannot simply take their “cattle” out to graze on the common resource, but instead must acquire majority support, which will inevitably lead to compromise on a large scale. This is in stark contrast to the natural commons where a herder can set his flock upon the commons without any consent required.
I am convinced, however, that there are parallels between the natural commons and the budgetary commons that cannot be discounted. There will always be support, by a significant enough portion of the population to sway elections, for personal over communal gain
Abstracting out into budgets as a natural commons can be useful as a thinking exercise but drawing real life policy recommendations solely on abstract theorizing can be dangerous.
I wanted to add on the difference from natural commons and the federal budget. I agree that the federal budget is not a natural common, but one has to notice that there are many similarities.
One thing that I have consistently thought about is that every federal agency or department has the incentive to increase their own budget (which would in turn, increase the overall federal budget). Although there are rules in how they can increase their budget, processes, and votes (which makes it very different from a tragedy of commons problem), there is still a large amount of agencies and departments that are fighting for the same resource
Another interesting aspect of this essay was the contrast between democracy and commons sustainability. Fiscal pools in democratic polities, like the commons, both involve substantial amounts of players, individual short-term gain from loosened oversight, and ultimately struggle with preservation
In Raudla’s, Governing budgetary commons: what can we learn from Elinor Ostrom?, she very clearly articulates some of the main problems with attributing setting budgets to a commons. Among these, that which I found to be most applicable is her statement regarding the lack of open access to budgetary commons. It is a key characteristic of a commons/prisoner’s dilemma that the resources are to be freely accessible to all members and no communication is involved amongst participants. She states that this is definitively not the case in regards to budget setting as, “access to budgetary commons is limited – by constitutional structures outlining the position, boundary and authority rules” (Raudla 2010 p.208 / p. 140 in our text).