All Commentary
Saturday, July 7, 2018

Tragedy of the Commons at a Kiddie Slide

Truly market-based economies inherently provide the best chance of an equal opportunity for participation no matter your size, strength, race, or gender.

A person with an interest in understanding how human behavior affects economic choice could do a lot worse than spending the day observing children. If he wanted to spend the better part of his life understanding the field then he could become a father and save significant time and money at university. I kid to some degree—of course—but one can certainly learn some important lessons in resource scarcity and the way memetic desire affects consumer choices from the interplay of two or more toddlers. For instance, if you find yourself taking only one of your children to McDonald’s and buy her a Happy Meal then you can safely assume whatever piece of molded plastic, that cost somewhere around a nickel to produce, she carries home will temporarily maintain the value of a rare precious metal. Given a day or two, however, that same piece of plastic will be tossed into a nebulous pile of toys where it will long be forgotten.

More recently, I can cite an example of what is often referred to as the tragedy of the commons at a fourth of July picnic run by my children’s school. That is, the theory that an individual’s behavior changes concerning his access to a finite resource. For instance, if a large piece of land was publicly shared and each individual surrounding it had equal rights to utilize its resources then it will quickly descend into an “every man for himself” race that will strip the land of any value. Whereas if that same piece of land were owned privately, then the property owner’s greed would be harnessed by his sense of responsibility and desire to make the best use of it, then its resources would be used in a manner mutually beneficial to both the owner and the public. The most obvious example of this dynamic in action can be seen in the difference between a privately-owned restroom and one run by a town or city. Most rational tourists will gladly drive an uncomfortable extra few miles to avoid the latter.

The Tragedy of the Inflatable Slide

In the case of the picnic, the event was reasonably well organized with food trucks (not working for free) and other merchants selling various goods lining the sidewalks outside of the local school. At the far end of the event was a compartmental inflatable slide; it featured hard plastic steps lined upward at a forty-five-degree angle on one side, and the equally steep slide on the other. With no proper check to regulate the flow of children the inflatable slide enters the scene as a scarce resource in an open field with about five hundred families. My two youngest daughters were as excited to slide as the other kids, but amid the chaos my six-year-old gave up after one try. My two-year-old however, possessing more grit than my older daughters, was willing to throw her elbows around and patiently suffer through line cutting and other party fouls to enjoy that quick adrenaline rush that came on the other side.

She was willing to work within the parameters of this chaos until one of the larger children, with the normal impulsivity of an excitable kid, took to slide too early and crashed into her at the bottom. At that point, she had enough and was ready to drown her sorrows in a Sno-Cone. With this inflatable slide being the limited resource which every kid at the picnic wished to enjoy the two most prominent factors for participation became size and willingness to aggressively fight to the top. It also prompted parents of the older children to let them go unsupervised to play king of the mountain. This particular issue is not in and of itself problematic until there is nothing in place to trigger prudent behavior by the older children. It seems to me a market-based system as simple as requiring a ticket to slide would have solved this two-fold problem of the influx of kids racing to the top and their behavior prompted by insufficient parental supervision.

The Inherent Fairness of the Free Market

An even more interesting element of the free for all model the organizers chose, in their desire to be fair and impartial, is they neglected a mutually beneficial system—which would ultimately reward them—for one that benefited the bigger and stronger kids over the little ones. Examples abound of writers, particularly from the socialist stratum of the internet, lamenting the marketplace as a zero-sum game that benefits the strong over the weak but the truth is quite the opposite. The instant a system is implemented that seeks to commonly share goods the conniving members immediately consider ways to exploit it and keep the spoils for themselves. If one has ever considered how socialist utopias inevitably descend into two classes, the fat and the malnourished, that is why. It ultimately renders the banal complaints of free market economics being too Darwinist as laughable. If anything, truly market-based economies inherently provide the best chance of an equal opportunity for participation no matter your size, strength, race, or gender.

The behavior of children offers the quiet observer a type of “through the looking glass” opportunity to comprehend what Ludwig Von Mises called praxeology, or how conscious human action affects economic choice. By having to fight among bigger and stronger kids for an opportunity to use an inflatable slide, my daughters were given a real-world workshop in how free markets are not only the best answer to scarcity, but ultimately the fairest. In a world of finite resources, and reasonably predictable human behavior, the economic system that has proven the most beneficial for everyone time and again has been market oriented. This is true whether we consider the free exchange of goods and services between two adults, or in providing proper checks to prevent such events as the tragedy of the commons. And, so to as the tragedy of the inflatable slide has proven; market-based solutions are even capable of mitigating the might makes right inclinations of our precious children.

  • Michael Morris is a husband and dad who lives in Denton, Texas. His essays have appeared in the Federalist, Aleteia, and the Libertarian Catholic. He also helps manage the Facebook page of the Libertarian Catholic.