Monday, April 25, 2011
In my property class, we spend a couple of hours wrestling with the "Tragedy of the Commons." In a typical year, I have my students read an excerpt from Hardin's seminal article, we go over the explanation in the Dukeminier textbook, and I pepper them with examples. Although these standard approaches all work OK, I've found that the best way to demonstrate the concept is with a simple video game designed for high-schoolers.
The game, called the Tragedy of the Bunnies, vividly illustrates how "The Tragedy" plays out and why private property rights can help. The concept is simple; You're a bunny merchant and you make your living by selling bunnies to children. Your goal is to sell an many bunnies as possible in two rounds. In both rounds, you score points by selling the bunnies, which you do by clicking on them.
The catch is that between rounds the bunnies get frisky and their population multiplies. If you sell them all in the first round then you'll have lots of money, but no bunnies to breed and sell in the second round. As this is the tragedy of the commons, you're also competing against two other bunny merchants controlled by the computer.
One final wrinkle; you can play the game in two versions. In the "public" version of the game, the bunnies are a common resource and they all get wiped in a matter of seconds. In the "private" version of the game, the bunnies are private property. You can exclude other competitors from taking your bunnies and conserve them for the second round.
I usually invite a student down to the front of the class to play both versions. They can then explain to the class why they overused the bunnies in the first game ("Because everyone else was grabbing bunnies, I had to as well!") and how private property then saved the day. I think it works pretty darn well. Although the game is simple (and clearly designed to promote private property) but it's a good springboard to discussing when and why the Tragedy plays out. Click on "Play the game" to see for yourself.