Posted by: Dirk | May 20, 2010

Tragedy of the commons

When I read:

Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, warned financial market investors on Thursday that if they do not give “honest advice” on how best to regulate their behaviour, politicians will take action anyway.

… then this springs to my mind:

The social arrangements that produce responsibility are arrangements that create coercion, of some sort. Consider bank-robbing. The man who takes money from a bank acts as if the bank were a commons. How do we prevent such action? Certainly not by trying to control his behavior solely by a verbal appeal to his sense of responsibility. Rather than rely on propaganda we follow Frankel’s lead and insist that a bank is not a commons; we seek the definite social arrangements that will keep it from becoming a commons. That we thereby infringe on the freedom of would-be robbers we neither deny nor regret.

The morality of bank-robbing is particularly easy to understand because we accept complete prohibition of this activity. We are willing to say “Thou shalt not rob banks,” without providing for exceptions. But temperance also can be created by coercion. Taxing is a good coercive device. To keep downtown shoppers temperate in their use of parking space we introduce parking meters for short periods, and traffic fines for longer ones. We need not actually forbid a citizen to park as long as he wants to; we need merely make it increasingly expensive for him to do so. Not prohibition, but carefully biased options are what we offer him. A Madison Avenue man might call this persuasion; I prefer the greater candor of the word coercion.

Coercion is a dirty word to most liberals now, but it need not forever be so. As with the four-letter words, its dirtiness can be cleansed away by exposure to the light, by saying it over and over without apology or embarrassment. To many, the word coercion implies arbitrary decisions of distant and irresponsible bureaucrats; but this is not a necessary part of its meaning. The only kind of coercion I recommend is mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon by the majority of the people affected.

Maybe this might sound a little harsh, but still: it seems that some people have treated financial markets as a commons, exploiting them for their individual gain and destroying the commons in the process. Garrett Hardin’s classic provides the right angle on how to deal with the problem. When has the police ever asked bank robbers for their “honest advice” on the security of banks?

UPDATE 31/05/2010: I stand corrected:

Since his release, Evans has dedicated himself to helping financial institutions minimize their risk of robbery. Capitalizing on his experiences as a bank robber and his reputation as an ex-con, Evans has forged a successful career as a noted speaker and branch security consultant who’s authored two books.

He has been featured on Good Morning America, CNN, and FOX and in Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Newsday, The New Yorker, and more. Evans has even published a DVD/CD training tool for financial institutions, Deterring & Responding to Robberies, (which you can order here through


  1. Well said 🙂

  2. However, hiring former black hats is a common practice in the world of IT-Security 🙂

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