There really is, as Garret Hardin pointed out, a problem called the Tragedy of the Commons. When a resource is exploited on an open access basis (ie, a Marxian one) and if demand on that resource is greater than the regeneration capacity then some form of management is required or the resource will be exhausted. In the modern era this means that the bureaucrats get to write lots of regulations. However, as Elinor Ostrom went on to get the Nobel for pointing out, it doesn’t have to be this way:
The local Vezo people subsist, on average, on $1.72 a day, well below the $2 a day official poverty line, and depend on fishing. After detailed discussions with the charity .and in village meetings, they decided to institute a series of two to three month closures of just a fifth of their octopus fishing areas, to give stocks time to recover. Just a single, experimental such closure, in 2004, has so far been followed by more than 100 others along the southwest coast.
The results, the study shows, have been dramatic. Octopus catches in the month after the closures – carried out under traditional laws, and enforced by the local communities themselves – are seven times as great, on average, as in the month immediately before them. Partly this is down to a big influx of fishers to the newly reopened areas, but – even so – individual catches almost doubled. Average incomes shot up by over 130 per cent, and did not fall significantly during the closure periods because the people then directed their efforts to the 80 per cent of their areas that remained open.
An octopus fishery is hugely well suited to such a system. Relatively short lived creatures (perhaps 6 months in the wild) and they usually die shortly after their one mating extravaganza. But Ostrom’s point was much more than that, it was that voluntary cooperation, in a group small enough to be able to cooperate properly (up to some few thousand people perhaps), can indeed solve these sorts of problems. Perhaps, as here, people might need to be told how to do it but that’s fine, none of us know everything.
Of course, as all three of Hardin, Ostrom and Coase have pointed out, not all problems of this type can be so solved. Which means that our necessary trick is to work out which ones can be and to leave those to voluntary cooperation to solve. Those that absolutely do require government intervention (which would need the cooperation of tens of millions perhaps, thus requiring that element of compulsion that only government does have) would, well, they’d need government action.
That is, we should be cutting government back to only those things which must be done and which can only be done by government. The rest of it, the stuff we can do for ourselves, we’ll get on with ourselves.