Rising xenophobia – a tragedy of the commons?

There have been a number of reports documenting the recent rise of xenophobia in our liberal democracies. In this short thought experiment I look at whether a tragedy of the commons type argument could be applied to this phenomenon, and if so, how its solutions could be adopted. The issue is massively complex, and this short piece isn’t going to do justice to it. This post is nothing more than a simple analogy that I thought up whilst ‘enjoying’ my early morning run in refreshing 7 degrees below zero.

Since the Brexit referendum there has been an upsurge of race related offences. It is debatable whether the referendum itself triggered the increase, whether it was the campaign running up to the referendum, whether this was a slow underlying trend, gaining force over time, or whether it was a combination of all of these. I personally sympathise with the ‘social identity theory’ explanation of how xenophobia develops. Across any dimension of our lives we can pigeonhole people into an in-group and an out-group (us and them, or in Kipling’s words we and they). When groups are set, we start thinking of ‘us’ in the in-group as a higher entity, and people in the out-group are perceived to be less distinct and more inferior. Against this behavioural setting it is crucially important what signal people get about their social identity (i.e. how the in-, and the out-groups are designed). Public discourse, led by politicians have been dominated by dichotomising people into Brits and migrants. This has seemingly been sufficient to fuel enough negative sentiment against anyone considered as out-group.

We could think of animosity against the out-group as a source of (real or perceived) utility for the in-group. For example, people view strangers as a threat or as a detriment to their own wellbeing (taking our jobs, etc.) and therefore opposition to ‘migrants’ is exercised in the hope that it would help reduce competition and preserve their wellbeing. In this thought experiment people might perceive that consuming more xenophobia makes them better off.

The problem is that what might appear appealing and profitable at an individual level, could have adverse effects on a wider scale. Too much negative sentiment against the out-group moves countries further away from being an open society (think in a Popperian sense). And this has economic implications. Introvert (or closed) societies do not fare as well as open ones. Although it might seem like a good idea for some (many) individuals to consume more xenophobia, for the society this over-consumption is harmful. Sounds a lot like Hardin’s tragedy of the commons. Let’s see if we can draw an analogy.

Head of Jersey Cow

“The commons” in the case of xenophobia would be the economic and social benefits of a Popperian open society. The urge of individuals to consume more xenophobia eats away the benefits that an open society could deliver, eventually resulting in an economy that is worse off.

Conventionally two solutions are offered for the tragedy of the commons. Privatisation or regulation. We have had regulation for a while, pretty strict ones, criminalising verbal and physical manifestations of racism or xenophobia. 2016 seems to be a living testimonial that they didn’t work, especially when such behaviour is quasi legitimised and reinforced by politicians. So what could be done? Well, firstly, one could re-design in-, and out-groups. According to social identity theory, a lot of responsibility would fall on politicians to not fuel in-group and out-group distinctions. This has been a spectacular failure.

But more intriguingly for this thought experiment: would ‘privatisation’ work? What would be privatised? How about “the benefits of being an open society”? The idea of privatisation in the tragedy of the commons is that property rights allow the internalisation of any costs imposed on others. When a society turns away from openness as a result of the aggregation of the behaviour of its individuals, the individuals do internalise (to some extent) the cost of their behaviour as they all suffer from the limitations of openness (such as reduced movement of goods, or integration of workers). But people are hardly aware when this happens.

To facilitate a Coasian outcome people would need to be made aware of the costs of their behaviour. Imagine a world where people are communicated the benefits they enjoy as a result of living in an open society. It seems obvious but it’s hardly ever practiced. Think of Britain’s 40 years in the EU. People have never been told that low prices, better quality products, etc are the fruits of economic integration. On the other hand, the costs of being in an open society (however rare they are) invariably make it to the headlines. When people know what they can lose by moving away from an open society, they would identify the costs of their xenophobic behaviour. Would it reduce the prevalence of such behaviour? Maybe not, but it might help some realise how their own actions can come back to bite them.


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