[FOUNTAIN]Taking the benefits without payingAfter heavy rainfall, we sometimes hear the news that some factory owner has illegally discharged wastewater into a river at night. Why does the factory owner compromise his conscience this way? Because he can save on production costs by not processing the wastewater properly.
That savings is enjoyed by himself alone, whereas the social cost of adding to the river’s pollution is one he can share with countless others. As an individual, he comes out ahead. (Of course, this is assuming that the factory owner is not caught and punished for his behavior.) This behavior is an example of the “tragedy of the commons,” as described in 1968 by Garrett Hardin in the journal Science.
Take the example of a village with a body of water that has a limited supply of fish. Early in the village’s history, everyone fishes as much as he likes. But as more and more people become fishermen, and as their skills improve, the stock of fish begins to dwindle.
If fishing is not controlled, everyone will be bankrupt in the end. Knowing this full well, all the fishermen continue to desperately cast their nets.
Where’s the sense in that? It’s simple: Each individual’s profit from continuing to fish ― that is, his catch ― is kept for himself. But the damage it causes ― the exhaustion of the stock ― is shared by the entire village. Even a fisherman who has a conscience cannot stop casting his net. He knows that if he does so, the others will keep going. And so the overfishing continues, the stock is used up and the village is ruined.
That is the tragedy of the commons: Everyone knows the common resources are limited, but individually, it doesn’t pay to restrain oneself. People are reluctant to take on the individual burden that corresponds to the benefit.
National defense is a good example. The fruits of national defense are enjoyed by everyone. However, not everyone pays the corresponding price. Some refuse to pay even a penny, and in some extreme cases, people go so far as to bribe corrupt officials to evade military service.
This year, the 60th anniversary of the nation’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule, the young generation was surveyed about its attitude toward the unification of Korea. Some 20.8 percent of young Koreans said they would prefer the status quo to unification. In a 1994 survey, only five percent said so; the number has grown more than fourfold in the meantime.
Their reasoning is that unification is a good thing, but they are not willing to pay the price for it. One young Korean even said, “I hope the country is unified after I die.” The tragedy of the commons is still in effect in Korea.
by You Sang-cheol
The writer is the JoongAng Ilbo’s Asian news editor.
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