The Tragedy of the Commons
We’re all familiar with the role of local government – why it works and how it works. In the photo above from 1900, an Auckland City Council employee throws inflammable fluid onto solid waste at the council’s ‘destructor’ (public incinerator). Rubbish was burned to prevent the spreading of diseases.
Source: Auckland City Libraries – Tāmaki Pātaka Kōrero, Sir George Grey Special Collections.
But, have you ever given much thought to local government’s ultimate purpose?
If we boil it right down to the essentials, it’s to save our collective self from our own individual impulses. Put another way, local government is a means to manage the public good against the private good. Or, in other words, to avoid what British economist William Forster Lloyd described in the 1860s as ‘the tragedy of the commons’.
Lloyd maintained that within a shared and finite resource system, individuals will act to maximise resource use for their own self-interest, which in turn depletes the shared resource available for everyone else. Think panic buying (private good) vs rationing (public good). Ultimately, the depleted resource system impacts more negatively on the individual’s ability to pursue prosperity.
This video does a great job of explaining the concept:
“When the tragedy of the commons applies…what is good for all of us, is good for each of us.”
Managing Public Good
This paradoxical behaviour highlights two things: Firstly, our intellectual limitation as a species! But more topically, the need for the democratic governance of common resources. The benefits and liabilities from the use of common resources is also termed, the public good.
Early Māori understood the importance of managing the public good, particularly around public sanitation. Evidence found in early settlement sites gives a glimpse of arrangements for rubbish disposal areas, purpose-built latrines, raised and sealed food storage as well as purpose-built separate facilities for giving birth and dying. They also had numerous tracks and trails creating a vast network for moving throughout the country.
Look after your own petty details…
In 1840, around ten months after the treaty of Waitangi was signed, New Zealand’s first Governor William Hobson was tasked with establishing “municipal and district governments for the conduct of all local affairs” and to “relieve the public treasury of wasteful expenditure and petty details”. In other words, the message from Britain was that the newly formed colony was henceforth to deal with its own sh*t.
This was early recognition that enabling people to manage their own ‘commons’ was an important step in building a prosperous nation.
Skip forward 180 years and local government plays an even greater role in the strength and prosperity of our people.
What does the future hold?
Local government is still relied upon to be the steward of the public good, but in contrast to 1840, it seems the ability for local government to manage itself has completely flipped.
According to the LGA website, local government in New Zealand consists of 78 local, regional and unitary councils. The elected members of these councils are chosen every three years by voters in their communities to represent them. The elected members employ a Chief Executive to run the everyday business of the council.
But, much of an council’s ability to plan, build and fund significant infrastructure remains at the mercy of the cycles of central government and partisan politics. To put that into perspective, there have been 8 different ministers of local government in the past 12 years, each trying to save us from our collective selves with their own individual ideas of what is needed… This may explain the explosion in regulations, processes and national policy statements imposed on councils.
From my perspective as an engineer, I think there is now (ironically) way too much money being spent on processes aimed at ensuring we don’t squander public money! Meanwhile, the public good diminishes…
It seems that letting communities manage their own sh*t, no longer applies. What a tragedy.
If you’re curious about this article or want to discuss it further, leave a comment or get in touch with Vaughn.
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