The commons and our social tragedy
One of the few concepts I learned during introductory political science courses that hasn't fallen through the hourglass of time is what's known as the tragedy of the commons.Â
The theory posits that when a common good is broadly accessible, it will eventually be depleted because societal health is overwhelmed by the ever-powerful force of self interest.Â
One of the reasons I still remember this theory, I think, is because of how often I am reminded of it.Â
Whenever I read reports of an animal species approaching extinction, a new climate forecast showing vast swaths of the world as nearly uninhabitable or a rainforest bulldozed for the sake of agricultural production, this phenomenon with truly tragic consequences moves to the forefront of my mind.Â
But it isn't only relevant to broad, world-altering phenomenons like climate change. It plays out at the local level too. Though counterintuitive to the logic of the theory, housing, I believe, might be the most pertinent example.
It's widely known that Oregon has a dearth of housing and I think most Oregonians agree that something needs to be done about it.
Most people also probably agree that a huge part of that solution is to build more homes — some that are market rate and others that are affordable (by its technical definition) through government subsidies.Â
But someone's theoretical beliefs are often clouded when the ultimate human motivator emerges — self interest. This leads not to the depletion of a common good but to its artificial scarcity for the benefits of the relatively-to-considerably affluent.Â
Any veteran reporter or city planner is familiar with the chain of events that follows the proposal of a dense housing development.
Homeowners who live near the site are apoplectic, attend city meetings voicing their strong objections and sometimes threaten to or actually serve litigation to make sure it never gets off the ground.Â
Last week in Wilsonville, for instance, the approval of a development in the Villebois Village Center that would bring in nearly 200 homes and potentially dozens of jobs to the community was delayed over a parking lot — put in as a way to assuage community concerns — due to the protestations of other residents.
Sometimes developers persevere through this oppositional cycle. Other times they don't — or are discouraged from trying.
The community activists who oppose development often say they are in favor of more housing — just not where their personal lives and wealth are tethered.Â
They also may use the vastness of the commons as an argument against action. No single housing development will lead to enough homes for the community or lower prices regionwide. It takes widespread proliferation to move the seesaw of supply and demand. So one measly complex won't help much anyway, right?Â
However, when this oppositional cycle repeats itself thousands of times, you get what we have right now in America — a lack of housing in most major regions. This isn't to say there aren't sometimes legitimate gripes nor that all housing projects are worth doing. But more often than not, they are a needed building block toward a healthier housing market.Â
Like anyone else, I am not immune from feeling invested in my own personal concerns. Right now in Portland they are talking about creating houseless villages across the city and if one of those camps were to be designated next to my abode, that would likely reduce nearby property values and potentially my quality of life. I probably wouldn't be exactly thrilled.Â
And yet, removing myself from the equation, I know that the houseless need a place to go — and they have to live somewhere. That means whoever owns a home or business nearby will be affected. Some will have to take one for the team.Â
I sympathize with those who are fearful about new housing affecting their neighborhood. Change, and its variabilities, is something many of us have a tendency to reject.Â
But I would encourage them to think deeply about the kind of society they want to live in and the roadblocks that lay in its path.Â
They may come to realize what I have: Societal prosperity takes individual sacrifice.Â
The commons need not prompt tragedy.Â
Corey Buchanan is the assistant editor of the West Linn Tidings and Wilsonville Spokesman.
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