The tragedy of the commons, regulatory capture and negative externalities

4 May

It occurred to me yesterday that roads can be thought of as a form of common land in that they are a shared resource available to individuals to perform a range of agreed activities. If it is common land then one can consider if the ‘the tragedy of the commons‘ is applicable which is defined in Wikipedia as being where ‘multiple individuals, acting independently and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource’.

Another useful term is ‘creep’, which can be used to describe the changes over time that can take place in norms, habits, and regulation. It seems to me that we have had both formal ‘regulatory creep’, for example the banning of football on the highway by the Highway Act 1835 and also informal ‘social’ creep; for example the general acceptance that the highway should be available for the storage of some very particular items of private property (notably cars and more recently wheelie-bins).

If one accepts that there has been creep then one can consider if there has been a degree of ‘regulatory capture’ which Wikipedia describes as follows: ‘capture occurs when a state regulatory agency created to act in the public interest instead advances the commercial or special interests that dominate the industry or sector it is charged with regulating. Regulatory capture is a form of government failure, as it can act as an encouragement for large firms to produce negative externalities. The agencies are called “captured agencies“. Yes, I do think it is fair to describe the police, local authorities and the courts as partially ‘captured agencies’.

So… what does this mean for this campaign? I think it provides a useful set of terms to use in debates with also provides some clues and historical examples of what we will need to do to get our public space back! Finally… here is a picture of a cow on a road for no particular reason other than it is proof that the motorist does not always have to have priority!

Beware, cows on the road – © Copyright Steve F ccbysa

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