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Our Tragedy of the Commons

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An essay that appeared in Science magazine back in the 1960's explains clearly and concisely the self-destructive path we're on in our country today.

The essay, "The Tragedy of the Commons", showed how individuals, rationally pursuing their self-interest, could unintentionally destroy their own common existence.

A simple problem is put forth: A common grazing field is available to a community of herders. Everyone brings his or her cows there. Because there is no clear ownership, the only incentive each herder has is to bring all of his cows to graze and consume as much as possible.

With everyone doing it, and no one having any incentive to consider the implications of their behavior beyond consuming as much as possible, the final result is obvious. The field is destroyed.

Only when there is ownership and private property do individuals working in their own self-interest also make everyone else better off. When it's yours and you have responsibility for it, you think about tomorrow and how to make best of use of resources.

Today's equivalent of the common field is what we call the public sector -- government. And our grazers are politicians and interest groups.

Whereas a businessman will be out of business in short order if he delivers a poor product or mismanages his firm, politicians just graze in the public pasture doling out other peoples' resources.

There was a lot of flowery talk recently about Senator Kennedy on occasion of his passing.

Kennedy was a man born into wealth who spent a life in politics growing government. What was the personal consequence to him of what he did in politics? By personal consequence, I mean on his bank account, his survival. None.

He could convince poor people that he was working for their interest by fighting against school choice while everyone in his family attends private schools.

Or he could declare, as he did, that everyone has a "right" to health care. The personal costs of this to average Americans in the way of massive new intrusion of government into their lives and in major new taxes to pay for it all had absolutely no personal consequence to Kennedy. Does anybody think he ever sat in an HMO waiting room?

The public sector -- government -- was just a sandbox for Senator Kennedy to play in to seek personal power and glory.

President Obama has just submitted a 10-year federal government budget projecting our national debt burden to reach $17 trillion. This is greater than our entire GDP today.

Does anyone think Barack Obama manages his personal finances this way? Or if he were president of his own company that he would be running it this way?

The bigger government gets, the more "special interests" we have grazing for personal gain.

Federal government spending is now twice what it was ten years ago. Can it surprise anyone that over the same period expenditures on lobbying more than doubled and the number of lobbyists in Washington increased 50 percent?

Or that with the major new push for government managed health care that Washington is crawling with health care lobbyists? Health care lobbying expenditures in 2008 were a half billion dollars. The spending pace so far this year exceeds that.

A hundred years ago the "public sector" was less than ten percent of our economy. By the 1940's it was almost one quarter. Soon it will be one half.

Our people and resources are being increasingly diverted from the productive private economy to the public pasture, where they graze and consume for personal gain and in total destroy a once great country.

It's our "tragedy of the commons." It's why we should fight at all costs to slam the breaks on this massive government hijacking.

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