3 Ways To Cope With ‘Jackassery’
“I wasn’t looking for Louisville’s biggest jackass, but I guess I found him,” I thought. Here was his Volvo SUV parked exactly halfway across two parking spots outside of Home Depot.
I just needed to return a soap dispenser.
A few years ago, I sat across from a woman at an airport playing a video game at full volume on her phone. The other travelers stared. We gave her the stink eye. Finally, I said, “Hey, what you’re doing is not acceptable. Mute your phone.” Is there a German word for being covered in shame and simultaneously regarding yourself as a hero?
And anyone riding public transportation has likely experienced “manspreading,” the predominantly male practice of sitting on public transit with his legs spread wide apart, crowding other passengers. Transit authorities worldwide have been forced to begin “anti‑manspreading” campaigns. I am not kidding.
These trivial and ultimately inconsequential moments illustrate a nontrivial problem that has far-reaching consequences for us and our planet, a concept described by economists and environmentalists as “the tragedy of the commons.” I’ll call it more simply “jackassery.”
At its core, the theory holds that when humans have a shared resource it tends to be exploited or overused by individuals pursuing their own self-interest. The concept was originally described in an 1833 essay which used overgrazing on common land in England as an example of the problem: individual farmers have incentives to put as many of their cattle on “the commons” as possible. Without regulation, the commons will be abused and everyone will suffer from its abuse when grass no longer grows at all on the commons.
Examples of abuses of the commons are not limited to ecological problems like air pollution, noise pollution and collapsing fisheries. Anyone who has ever found (maybe on the bottom of a shoe?) dog poop in a park has experienced the tragedy of the commons. Our shared spectrum of radio frequencies is a commons. Tax revenue is a commons.
The dilemma of how to share our many commons is so important, I would be OK if every kid graduated high school only able to a) explain the problem, b) identify commons prone to abuse in the real world, and c) propose solutions to avoid such abuse. Math? Art? Those can wait. We’ve got some commons that need to be identified and protected.
What are some of those solutions? We have three broad categories: privatization, regulation and shame.
If we want the office refrigerator to stop being a dump of three-month-old leftovers, we could sell plots of refrigerator real estate to our co‑workers. This would give Doris the incentive to keep her area tidy (finally). But while privatization can be an elegant solution to the abuse of commons in certain circumstances, it often encounters logistical and moral complications: How should we sell the atmosphere? What’s the price for fresh air?
These complications often recommend regulation rather than privatization. Traffic laws and speed limits are simply a way of protecting our roadways from individuals who would selfishly abuse our commonly-held thoroughfares. Without the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife’s annual “Elk Lottery,” there would quickly be zero elk to be hunted in Kentucky.
Creating sensible regulations to ensure fair use of the many “commons” we share is the fundamental task of our democracy. In these laws and regulations, we find not only our values but our continuing commitment to living and sharing together.
Finally, for those situations in which privatization or regulation can’t work, there’s always shaming.
Selfishly abusing a common resource is a shameful act and we should say so more often. The “greed is good” class has been valorizing selfishness with a siren song for decades. Shaming selfishness is more important now than ever before because we have a president who claims that assiduously avoiding paying any federal taxes for years and years makes him “smart.” Presumably, the rest of us are suckers for contributing to the common pool of assets used for our shared education, protection and benefit.
When shaming abuses of our commons, it’s important to keep in mind the phenomenon of the “fundamental attribution error.” Basically, the fundamental attribution error suggests that we are more likely to think another person misbehaves because something is broken inside them while we are more willing to view our own misconduct as the result of situational factors.
When protecting our commons, we should first privatize or regulate as appropriate. But, if you must shame, shame with empathy.
Ben Carter is a consumer rights attorney in Louisville. He writes for The Courier-Journal, where this piece first appeared.