Anticommon Sense

This is the fiftieth post in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. (Volume L contains the introduction, reader’s guide, and general index, and will therefore be addressed out of order in the final post of the series.) Volume LI: Lectures

Consider a town with a plot of land dedicated to grazing sheep. Every townsperson has free access to the land, and may graze as many sheep as he has. As ideal as this may sound, the town soon runs into a problem; the grass, it turns out, is a finite resource. The townspeople each realize that they individually reap the benefit of grazing their sheep on the public land, while the cost of doing so (in the form of depleted grass) is borne by everybody. This leads to overgrazing, if only because someone will conclude that overgrazing is inevitable, so he might as well beat his neighbors to it. In the end, the common resource that could have been advantageous to everyone is ruined.

This problem is known as the tragedy of the commons, and is familiar to most people. Because people see what the want to see, it has been used to justify policies ranging from privatizing natural resources, to nationalizing them.

One possible “solution” results in another problem: the tragedy of the anticommons. Suppose the townspeople, worried about overgrazing, change the rules for using the commons. Now, any use of the commons requires unanimous approval from the townspeople. They soon find that some people favor changing the commons from sheep pasture to cattle. Others prefer that the land be used for goats. The town vegans form a bloc to oppose all animal husbandry on the commons. Because there are so many stakeholders, it becomes a practical impossibly to negotiate any use for the commons. Rather than the land being overused, it is now underused because no consensus can be reached.

The Gordon Lightfoot song The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald is an example of the tragedy of the anticommons. When a television producer approached Lightfoot about using the song in an episode of his show, Lightfoot only agreed on the condition that the producer also get the approval of all of the families of the victims of the shipwreck. The producer quickly realized that the transaction costs associated with tracking down and negotiating with 29 families would be prohibitive. Because too many people had a say in the conditions under which the song would be used, the producer wrote a similar song, and The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald did not get used at all.

Beer of the week: Edmund Fitzgerald Porter – This brew from Great Lakes Brewing Co. is anything but a wreck. The aroma is similar to Guinness, but the flavor and mouthfeel are both more substantial. The beer is a little bitter, a little sweet, and a lot delicious.

Reading of the week: Law and Liberty by Roscoe Pound – The lectures included in the Harvard Classics set are almost entirely by then-contemporary Harvard professors. Roscoe Pound was a professor of jurisprudence at the time, but went on to become dean of Harvard Law. As a prominent educator and as a thinker who deeply engaged with the history and philosophy of the law, Pound would arguably have a case for inclusion if the Harvard Classics were to be updated today. This essay discusses the history of law and personal liberty in a way that may be helpful for understanding the conflicting individual and social interests at stake in the case of the commons.

Question for the week: Would a best solution to the problem of the commons include some sort of payment to those townspeople who do not have sheep and, therefore, do not use the commons? Or would would payments to non-shepherds amount to an undesirable incentive to not raise sheep?

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What Hope

This is the twentieth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XX: The Divine Comedy, Dante

Having descended to the very pit of hell, and climbed the mountain of purgatory, Dante the pilgrim at last ascends into the celestial spheres of paradise. As was the case through Inferno and Purgatorio, Dante meets many souls in Paradiso. Among them, James son of Zebedee. St. James poses three questions about hope.

In context, the questions clearly refer to hope as a theological virtue. In the previous canto, St. Peter inquires about faith. In the next, St. John tests Dante on charity. Canto XXV is about the sister of those two virtues: hope. But how do Dante’s answers square with the common definition of hope rather than the theological?

What is hope?

Dante says that hope is the sure expectance of a joy to come. This oversteps the usual meaning of hope. It is possible to hope for a joy that never does come. (As when I hope that my favorite baseball team will win.) On the other hand, if one is absolutely certain that a joy is forthcoming, we might not call that hope at all. Such certainty would preclude mere hope.

Rather than Dante’s formulation, it seems more likely that commonplace hope is the present experience of a joy to come. Hope allows us to experience now some portion of a possible future joy. For example, I hope one day to visit Munich for Oktoberfest. That present hope of a potential future occurrence allows me to experience some joy today in the planning and dreaming. Even though I am not certain that I will ever make it back to Germany, I hope that I will. I am therefore able to take present joy in the hoping.

How does it flourish in you?

Dante does not answer this question for himself. Rather, Beatrice vouches for his hope. She tells St. James that not a single member of the church has more hope than he.

Taking the mundane meaning of hope, we may see that people are always possessed of some hope. Humans are always forward thinking. To be sure, sometimes we do not think very far ahead, but we always think ahead somewhat. Even as we reach for the beer mug, we look forward to the pleasure of taking a sip. Is the expected joy more than a moment away? No. But is it in the future relative to when we start to reach for the glass? Absolutely. Because the first motions toward any objective are aimed at the completion of that objective, there really is no such thing as “instant gratification”. Rather, every single decision is made with an eye to a future good. The only truly instant gratification that exists is hope. Even before we begin to move toward the future good, we experience some joy of it through hope.

What is its source?

Dante, still discussing the theological virtue of hope, says that its source is scripture. He singles out the Book of Isaiah, John’s Gospel, and the Epistle of St. James. (What an apple-polisher!)

Surely scripture can be a source of commonplace hope, but we need not set our sights so high. In fact, it is the smallest things that may be the greatest sources of hope. As discussed above, every action is performed with the hope of achieving some goal. The smallest actions are the most likely to succeed. I flip the light switch in hopes of lighting the room; I go to the bar hoping to get a beer; I cross the street hoping to get to the other side. In all of these things, my chance of success is so high, that I am entitled to hope for the best. Cynical as it may sound, I have virtually no hope of becoming an astronaut at this late stage in my life. So, although the potential future joy is very great, the present “hope value” is quite low. And although the joy of trying a new beer is relatively low compared to visiting the moon, the odds that I will like the beer of the week are quite high. As a result, the present hope value (to coin a term) is quiet high.

Anyway, I hope you liked this post.

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Beer of the week: Mississippi Mud Black & Tan – From the celestial spheres to the Mississippi Mud. Pre-bottled black & tan misses out on the very best feature of the classic mixed beer: the layering. Layering is not only visually appealing, it allows the drinker to experience the two beers as they mix, so no two sips are ever quite the same. Even so, pre-mixed black & tan is usually delicious. This is a very tasty combination of porter and pilsner. It is deep amber in color with a creamy tan head. The aroma is of fresh sourdough and cocoa. The flavor is full without being heavy, with some nice dark cherry notes in the finish. Good thing it is sold by the quart; one glass might not be enough. Oh, and the name is a lie; Mississippi Mud is brewed in upstate New York.

Reading of the week: Paradiso by Dante Alighieri, Canto XXV – This canto is pretty well outlined above.

Question for the week: Is Dante’s definition of hope (the sure expectance of a joy to come) or my definition (the present experience of a potential future joy) better? Is there a better definition still?


Champions for Truth

This is the third in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume III: Bacon, Milton, Browne

Imagine that you are in a debate, say, about politics or about who is the best third baseman of all-time. Then, a new interlocutor chimes in, and he is on your side! The problem, though, is that he is not very knowledgeable or articulate. As a result, he is doing you no favors by speaking up. In fact, he is setting your opponent up for easy points. If this guy would just shut up, you know that you could win this debate, but you are being forced to defend poorly thought-out and poorly expressed arguments rather than having the benefit of crafting your own.

This is not an unusual set of circumstances, especially in a world where such “discussions” take place in the form of nesting comments to an article or facebook post. But, of course, these circumstances are not new. Nearly 400 years ago, Sir Thomas Browne offered some advice on the subject that is still eminently applicable.

In the first place, chose whom you debate wisely: “Where we desire to be informed, ’tis good to contest with men above our selves; but to confirm and establish our opinions, ’tis best to argue with judgments below our own, that the frequent spoils and Victories over their reasons may settle in ourselves an esteem and confirmed Opinion of our own.”

Secondly, just because you are right doesn’t mean that you are equipped to defend your position: “Every man is not a proper Champion for Truth, nor fit to take up the Gauntlet in the cause of Verity: many from the ignorance of these Maximes, and an inconsiderate Zeal unto Truth, have too rashly charged the Troops of Error, and remain as Trophies unto the enemies of Truth. A man may be in as just possession of Truth as of a City, and yet be forced to surrender; ’tis therefore far better to enjoy her with peace, than to hazzard her on a battle.”

And finally, you may be firm in your opinions, but if you are intellectually honest, you should be willing to abandon those opinions entirely if presented with a better argument. And, as a consequence, you should not be upset with those who disagree with you (or those who agree with you, but for the wrong reasons): “I could never divide myself from any man upon the difference of an opinion, or be angry with his judgment for not agreeing with me in that from which perhaps within a few days I should dissent my self.”

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Beer of the week: Breckenridge Vanilla Porter – Breckenridge Brewery is a personal favorite, and this offering does not disappoint. A lovely porter with lots of, but not too much, vanilla. It pours with a nice tan head, and the beer has a decent amount of body. A very good beer.

Reading of the week: Religio Medici by Sir Thomas Browne – Like so many good books, this tract on religion was banned by the Catholic Church. In this selection, Browne endeavors to distinguish heresies from “bare Errors, and single Lapses of understanding.”

Question for the week: Browne advocates debating our intellectual superiors to learn, and debating our intellectual inferiors to solidify and gain confidence in our positions. Is it easy to distinguish when we are trying to learn and when we are trying to build confidence? Aren’t their elements of both in most debates?


Three for One Deal

“The most certain of all basic principles is that contradictory propositions are not true simultaneously.”

That is just one expression of the law of noncontradiction. It can be put in a number of ways, but it always comes down to saying that mutually exclusive conditions cannot coexist.

This raises the first classic St. Patrick’s Day problem (the second classic St. Patrick’s Day problem is alcoholism): what is to be made of the Trinity? The trinitarian notion of God is that God is three persons in one being. The Father begot the Son, and the Holy Ghost proceeds from the two of them. Yet, the three are eternal and exist as a single God. This sure looks like a violation of the law of noncontradiction: nothing can be both one and many. Additionally, one cannot be primary and coextensive. That is, one thing cannot both precede another and be coeternal with it.

St. Patrick attempted to explain the mystery with a sprig of clover, known as a shamrock. A sprig of clover, Patrick observed, has three leaves that are all connected. Each leaf is independent and identifiable, yet they form a single shamrock. So the shamrock is both three and one. Just like the Trinity.

The shamrock example, however, is not very convincing. The leaves of the clover are separate and divisible from each other, and no one leaf is the whole clover itself. In effect, each leaf is just one part of the whole. And the mystery of the Trinity is not that simple (hence the term “mystery”.) The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are each believed both totally independent and totally united. An inescapable violation of the law of noncontradiction.

Dante’s attempt at a visual depiction of the Trinity seems more appropriate than the shamrock. Rather than describing the three persons as simple thirds of the single being that is God, Dante describes God as “three circles, Of threefold colour and of one dimension.” Each circle is simultaneously the same circle and distinguishable. He then goes on to state that “all speech is feeble and falls short” of describing the Trinity.

I dare say that he is right.

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Beer of the Week: Primátor Stout – Guinness (both original and draught) has already been featured on this blog. So this St. Patrick’s Day beer is a stout from another part of Europe altogether. This Czech beer pours a very, very dark brown and has a head of large, tan bubbles. The mouthfeel of this surprisingly thin. As it warms, though, this beer really shows its rich malt flavor. Not bad at all.

Reading for the week: Paradiso, Canto XXXIII by Dante Alighieri – After a journey through hell and purgatory, the pilgrim Dante makes it to and through heaven to see the very face (or circles) of God. Not included in this reading is the 4th Sphere of Heaven, where the pilgrim Dante see Boethius. In a recent post on this blog, it was noted that Boethius was put to death by the order of King Theodoric the Great. Theodoric, as it turns out, was not a Trinitarian. He was a follower of Arianism, a heterodox view that Jesus, as “begotten God”, is not co-eternal with God the Father and the Holy Ghost.

Question for the week: Paradiso ends with the the pilgrim Dante’s “desire and will” being acted upon by “The Love which moves the sun and the other stars.” I take that “Love” with a capital “L” to be God Himself. Is it better, or merely oversimplifying to think of God as Love itself rather than as a Trinity?


Out of place and out of time

Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn that I own a few volumes of Great Books of the Western World from Encyclopædia Britannica. (And most of the volumes that I do not own I can get online for free curtesy of The University of Adelaide.) In fact, I suspect that at least half of the weekly readings on this blog can be found in that set.

Mortimer Adler, one of the minds behind the Great Books set, was very interested in the idea that liberal education was appropriate for everybody. Apparently, he kept up a correspondence with a plumber in Utah who had purchased his books. This man served as proof to Adler that an appreciation of and relationship with the Great Books is possible for anybody.

Adler was interested in his “philosophical plumber” because he showed that even in the average man there could be a philosophical soul. I have always enjoyed something of the opposite observation: that the lowly or crude can be found in the great works and their authors. From the schoolyard humor of Aristophanes, Swift, and Rabelais (all three of whom have works included in the Britannica set) to the scatological love notes of Joyce and Mozart. The real draw of these is how out of place and time they seem.

One of the real pleasures in life is finding something new and different where it is unexpected.

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Beer of the week: Primátor 24% Double – One such surprise is finding a delicious double porter from a country that is known for its golden lagers. As far as I can tell, the percent symbol (%) on this label should actually be a degree symbol (°). The brewers at Pivovar Náchod apparently use a decent pile of malt to get the sugar content in this beer up to 24° Plato. So much sugar produces both a high alcohol content (10.5%) and a very sweet flavor. This double porter is a very dark brown with a creamy tan head that fades a bit too quickly for my liking. The high alcohol content is evident in the aroma. The flavor is predominantly sweet, almost like a fruit cake or a rum cake. It is a very rich, thick sweetness. Initially, this sweetness is nearly overpowering; I felt a pressing need to consume a salty snack to balance it out. After a while the alcohol content makes itself known by cutting through the sweetness and by imparting a pleasant flush to the face. The quality of this beer can’t be doubted, but it is hard to imagine when a beer this strong and sweet would be ideal.

Reading for the week: Cordas v. Peerless Transp. Co. decision by Judge Carlin – This 1941 court decision involves a mugging, a carjacking, and an entire family being hit by a taxicab with nobody behind the wheel. It is also very artfully written with many classical allusions and comical turns of phrase. It reminds one of a Wodehouse story. In the words of the Honorable Judge, the story is “a breath-bating drama with a denouement almost tragic.”

Question for the week: Why is it that things most catch our eye when they seem out of place?