The tragedy of the commons is an oft-cited theoretical example by those who advocate government intervention. It postulates that, without regulation and intervention, public goods that everyone has an interest in using will actually not be provided (or at least not efficiently or to an optimal quantity) if contributions are voluntary. The logic is that everyone’s dominant course of action is to essentially just refrain from contributing because, if one contributes and others don’t, then the public good is not provided and their payoff is worse than if they don’t contribute and the public good is not provided. Additionally, if they don’t contribute and the public good is provided, the individual’s payoff is higher than if they do contribute and the public good is provided. In this sense, a society full of rational, self-interested individuals (as this scenario represents it) could actually lead to a harmful or sub-optimal outcome for society in the long run.
However, Wikipedia is a prominent, empirical illustration of how the tragedy of the commons does not always hold since the website runs purely on private donations. Periodically, the site’s owners ask for donations to maintain it and keep it running ad-free. They claim that if everyone who read their plea paid £3, then fundraising would be over within an hour – nice in principle but not everyone pays up in practice. Some, inevitably, end up contributing more than others and many don’t contribute monetarily at all.
The following chart lists the percentage of donators corresponding to each reason for donating to Wikipedia, according to Wikipedia.
Conversely, here are the reasons cited for not donating:
Of course, one might argue that the knowledge found on Wikipedia is unreliable. However, a study published in Nature found that Wikipedia “is about as accurate on science as the Encyclopaedia Britannica”. Of course, Encyclopaedia Britannica attempted to refute the study. Access to a vast store of monitored, reviewed information via Wikipedia is an incredible asset to humanity and this asset is made possible entirely through voluntary contributions (whether this be in terms of time spent editing or money contributed) rather than through the coercive dictates that people are so often subject to.
Furthermore, it’s interesting to note that if you were to, hypothetically, replace “donating to Wikipedia” with “tax” in the second bar chart, you might find a lot of people agreeing with the affordability, with unwillingness to pay tax based on principle or their belief that it would not be used properly. Similarly, people may want to contribute time to society rather than pay money to preserve it.
In our rapidly changing world, voluntary contributions to fund public goods may become feasible sooner rather than later.