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Tending to the Commons

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Tom Barth
January 9, 2022

As a new year unfolds, I am considering the state of our country from a public administration perspective. I keep thinking about some dear departed colleagues, a classic economics concept with a twist and the concept of the public interest. Let me start with the concept from economics called the tragedy of the commons. When discussing the COVID-19 vaccination rate in the United States with some family and friends over the holidays and why it is isn’t higher, I was surprised that they were not more familiar with the concept of the tragedy of the commons and I shared why I thought it was relevant to the topic.

In a nutshell, the basic encyclopedia explanation is that the tragedy of the commons is a problem in economics when individuals neglect the well-being of society in the pursuit of personal gain. This leads to over-consumption and ultimately depletion of the common resource, to everyone’s detriment. The concept is typically applied to issues such as depletion of natural resources, but I would suggest it also applies to the under-utilization of a common resource, in this case the COVID-19 vaccine. Whether the reason is fear of a drug, distrust of government, libertarian ideology or other political stances, at the end of the day the pursuit of individual beliefs (and dismissal of scientific evidence provided by the CDC and other qualified sources) is spoiling the commons (i.e., public health, hospital bed availability, the economy). This certainly qualifies as a tragic (and avoidable) spoiling of the commons being played out every day!

Focusing on the commons also shifts the discussion away from a preoccupation with individual rights and concerns to the question of what is in the public interest (i.e., the commons). An eminent public administration scholar, Charles Goodsell, suggests that one should use the following concepts as a screen to help determine if a particular action or policy is in the public interest:

  • Legality-morality (adherence to the law, basic precepts of moral behavior)
  • Political responsiveness (preserving majority rule and minority rights)
  • Political consensus (commitment to finding common ground)
  • Concern for logic (justifiable and tied to reasonable purposes)
  • Concern for effects (future impact on all affected persons)
  • Agenda awareness (ignored or powerless groups considered)

Although the preservation of minority rights (in this case resistance to vaccination) must be part of the equation, is it not trumped by the other public interest standards? As has been widely mentioned in these discussions, other mandatory vaccines in our society have been widely accepted for these reasons.

Thinking about the commons also reminds me of my departed colleagues who tended to the concept in their lives. One was Dr. Milan Dluhy, an academic associate for many years. When conducting annual performance evaluations or discussing applicants for faculty positions, Milan would always raise the question of whether an individual, “Cared about the commons.” In other words, was there evidence that the individual looked beyond self-interest and contributed time and effort to making their department a better place for all members?

Finally, the concept of the commons reminds me of Bill Caster, a community colleague who recently passed. Bill attended the United States Coast Guard Academy, graduating in 1963 with a BS in Engineering. He also earned an MS in Oceanography at the Naval Post Graduate School, Monterey, CA; and an MBA and MPA from Golden Gate University. After his military service he retired in Wilmington, NC and co-owned and operated a successful small business. He was elected to the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners in 1992 and served concurrently for 18 years. He also taught Political Science as an Adjunct Professor at UNC Wilmington before retiring in 2011. He was an active member of numerous nonprofit boards and participated in numerous mission trips throughout the years. In his time as a commissioner, Caster helped to increase resources for several vital community services, including the public schools, sheriff’s office and community colleges. “Folks tend to look on their public officials now with disdain and contempt and distrust,” said Woody White, former chairman of the New Hanover Board of Commissioners. “Bill personified the exact opposite of all those things. He was honest. He kept his promises. He was sincere and he devoted every second of his life to service to his country and his community.” Despite our political differences, I always invited Bill to my classes because he listened and also understood that the commons would only be served if the elected officials and career public administrators had a respectful working relationship.

As we enter the new year, our society at all levels would be well served to ponder the commons and how we can all work together to serve it; there are examples all around us if we take the time to look beyond just our personal interests and beliefs.


Author: Tom Barth is a Professor of Public Administration in the Gerald G. Fox MPA program at UNC Charlotte. He teaches, conducts research, and consults in the areas of organizational behavior, strategic planning, human resource management and ethics. He can be reached at [email protected]

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