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Tyranny for the Commons Man

HOW DOES one escape a dilemma in which multiple individuals acting in their own rational self-interest can ultimately destroy a shared limited resource—even when it is clear this serves no one in the long run?

The commons problem starts at its base as a more sophisticated version of the prisoner’s dilemma, an exercise that has been used to model everything from littering to nuclear proliferation. As we know from these exercises in which convicts stay mum or rat out their partners to cut a deal on their sentence, both inmates do better collectively over the long term by cooperating with each other and staying silent. But in any one-shot game, there will be no trust between the two of them and so they will both rat out one another. People often think negotiations about the global commons aren’t dominated by the nasty and brutish forces one normally associates with international power politics (or our nation’s prisons). After all, goes the argument, the commons involves “softer” security issues and sits so low on the foreign-policy-priority food chain that different tools and techniques are required. But this is not the case. Every one of the psychological strategies for approaching international talks is built on the idea of “cooperating” or “defecting.” And whether one is dealing with hard or soft stakes, iterative and cooperative negotiations with clear costs and incentives are the most successful. At all levels of the international-negotiating spectrum, there are situations in which cooperation is possible even though people are vulnerable in the short run to exploitation.

Research has taught us that for cooperation to emerge, games must have multiple moves and the future has to matter. The logic is straightforward: if you are out to win a one-move game, defection is the dominant strategy (like the tyranny of small decisions in the commons problem). But defection will lose its dominance if what you do on your turn will affect what the other player does on his next. Thus, in attempting to produce cooperation among states to conserve the global commons, we should seek to create multiple-move negotiations in which the future matters. Make a trade agreement conditional on a greenhouse-gas treaty. Make opening one’s borders to imports conditional on refraining from overfishing. This is an argument, in short, for ongoing international entanglements. It is a way to avoid the anarchy of a global environment where no one governing body enforces all laws.

Research also shows that even if there is no way to enforce agreements, people (and governments) who talk about the dilemma are more likely to work together than those who do not. So one major aim of the Obama administration’s Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate is to avoid the failures of the Kyoto Protocol discussions. As Andrew Revkin writes in the New York Times, “While a grand if loosely outlined accord was forged in Japan in December of [1997], subsequent negotiations over details left the pact emasculated, by many accounts, and also without United States support.” The Kyoto treaty, sweeping and lacking in specifics, didn’t necessitate much follow-through or give-and-take among its signatories. As such, it was rejected by the Senate and later wholly jettisoned by the Bush administration. The Kyoto fiasco goes to show that if parties aren’t in it for the long haul and don’t succeed in setting common terms, defection is likely. So conversation in addition to the threat of retaliation seems to foster cooperation.

And chances of success are further increased if you “start out nice.” That is, cooperating. True, cooperators are vulnerable to exploitation, but they open the possibility of a virtuous cycle of mutual cooperation.Defectors are doomed to a vicious cycle of defection. Political scientist Robert Axelrod showed some years ago that the simple strategy of “tit-for-tat”—start out cooperating and from then on, do whatever your partner did on the previous turn—bested all comers in a prisoner’s dilemma “tournament.” (Actually, it bested all comers but “tit-for-two-tats,” an even nicer, more forgiving strategy.) And this was in a situation in which the aim was to win, not to cooperate. The point is that cooperation does work and can be incentivized so it becomes the preferable strategy.

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