Saturday, June 27, 2015

Tragedy of the Wages-Rut System

In a 2013 article, "Generalizing the core design principles for the efficacy of groups," David Wilson, Elinor Ostrom and Michael Cox recount Garrett Hardin's classic parable of the pasture overgrazed by farmers, each pursuing their own private interest by adding more cattle to their herd. Hardin's grim conclusion of a "tragedy of the commons" was shown to be avoidable  by Ostrom's Nobel Prize winning research, in that, "when certain conditions are met groups of people are capable of sustainably managing their common resources [emphasis in original]."

Wilson, Ostrom and Cox go on to discuss the evolutionary salience of those eight core design principles. Incidentally, Barkley Rosser was co-editor with Wilson and John Gowdy of the supplementary issue of Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization in which the article appeared and was co-author the editorial introduction to the issue, "Rethinking economics from an evolutionary perspective." I would welcome any thoughts Barkley might have on this post.

In generalizing Ostrom's core design principles from common-pool management groups to other kinds of groups, the article makes a puzzling omission: labor unions. They specify "governments, businesses, schools, neighborhoods, and volunteer organizations," but no mention  of organized labor. What makes this omission even more intriguing is that Garrett Hardin borrowed his analogy of the commons from the 19th century Oxford don, William Forster Lloyd who was using it to illustrate an argument about over-supply of the labor market and consequent unemployment and impoverishment of workers. Some Lloyd scholars have described his analysis as "proto-Marxist".

In 2010, when I was first drafting the Labor Commons Union idea, I sent a draft to Elinor Ostrom, who replied, "thanks -- had not thought about labor as a common pool that could be exhausted but now I see the similarity with resources." Paul Burkett had also seen the similarity and argued, in Marx and Nature: A Red Green Perspective, that Marx had treated labor power as a common-pool resource although he hadn't used that terminology.

So, if labor power is indeed a common-pool resource as Burkett and I argue and as Ostrom briefly acknowledged, it would seem that a common-pool resource management strategy would be more appropriate than a wages-rut system for establishing equitable compensation of labor. By the same token, the design principles identified by Ostrom and discussed in the paper by Wilson, Ostrom and Cox would be especially compelling.