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Tragedy of the Common Living Space

The article discuss the descent into the unsanitary that five roommates sharing living space experienced one summer. While not on the cutting edge of academia, this does have practical implications for students and relevance to the class. The author describes how, at first, pristine levels of hygiene are maintained. But then one spill or stain goes unnoticed and unattended to. And then another. The delicate structures maintaining cleanliness and livability unspool into horrid living conditions.

The strategy of maintaining hygienic living conditions does indeed maximize social welfare. However, with the perspective of evolutionarily stable strategies in mind, we can think of how one housemate will respond to the “herd” of others. Everyone is cleaning regularly and doing their part to maintain pristine living conditions. However, these conditions can be maintained even if one individual’s response is to never clean. The others can carry the work load. This means that a dominant response to everybody choosing to clean regularly is for the individual to never clean. This is unstable because the response to the herd’s behavior is the other behavior. That is why things spiral out of control: nobody wants to clean if they think that somebody else will. This is an example of the tragedy of the commons in that the shared resource (living space) is used but not maintained. Nobody is charged extra for the marginal mess they make. Each dirty dish and each uncleaned spill don’t make for a messy living space, but together the common good becomes less beneficial to all.


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December 2015