The tragedy of the commons, revisited

Each week, Symposium’s blog highlights comments about the week’s featured article. This week’s piece is “The War on Social Science.”

Prof. Rick Wilson

I want to make the point that sometimes even well-intentioned legislative language can have adverse consequences. We have to think of the scholars in the future whose work could be blocked by a more constrained NSF.

Take Robert Putnam, a political scientist from Harvard, who I mentioned yesterday. As it happens, Putnam was awarded the National Humanities Medal this week for his work on civil society and democracy. Many of you might recognize his books “Making Democracy Work” and “Bowling Alone,” demonstrating that civic engagement at the grass roots level is critical for successful democracies. And yet, as he has pointed out, his NSF-funded research 40 years ago would not be funded under current legislative language.

Another example is my mentor and Nobel Prize-winner Elinor Ostrom, who made a career out of studying the “tragedy of the commons.” Most of her work focused on water resources, fisheries and forests, and the NSF funded a great deal of that work. She showed that a centralized state government was not needed to solve the tragedy of the commons. Instead, like Putnam, she demonstrated that local associations are ordinarily more effective in handling such problems. And like Putnam, she would not have received funding for her fundamental basic research under the current legislative language.

Let’s go back to Sen. Coburn’s remark about what should be funded. In 2009, on the Senate floor, he noted that he was not against political science as a discipline. But he declared: “If there ought to be any political science study done, it is, why are members of Congress such cowards? That is the thing we ought to study. We ought to study why we refuse to do the right thing because it puts our job at risk.”

Under the current legislative language, such a study would certainly be barred from funding. However, it struck me that if I were an NSF program officer, I would not fund this anyway. The reason: the phenomena that lead members to be “cowards” have already been well studied. Members of Congress are in fact voting their district’s interests, rather than being cowardly.

Going back to Ostrom’s work, let’s think of the federal budget as resembling a commons. Members would like their district or state to get a share of this, indeed, as large a share as possible. Of course, as everyone takes from the budget, it cannot be replenished quickly enough. In a simple-minded way, no one has an incentive to forgo taking what they see as their share, and deficits are inevitable. So Coburn might want to look at that research to answer his question.



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