The Tragedy of the Lords

A tragedy of the commons is said to occur when a resource available to everyone becomes overused until it becomes available to no one.  Everyone loses in the end.

A tragedy of the lords is how I refer to the phenomenon of an endless escalation of socially motivated spending.
‘Keeping up with the Joneses as it is commonly called.  (Don’t know why everyone measures themselves against the Welsh.)

In such a situation:
as one rises in economic status the more resources must be spent on tokens indicating one’s social status.   Since everyone is trying to appear to have as high of status as possible, the necessary expenditure is always forced steadily upward.

In time, one car is not enough to keep up
one working spouse is not enough to keep up
a nicer, bigger house in a better neighborhood and a better school district is required to keep up
Even if a household got a third wage earner in the form of a worker robot, everyone else would get worker robots and the competition would go up yet another notch.   People labor for that promotion and pay raise but no matter what they do, nothing will change.  Worse, more money is just more rope to hang themselves with.

In such a system, millions of people fall deep into debt as they struggle to appear to have the highest status possible.  Behind this flimsy facade there is mostly debt paper.  A system based on illusion can last only for a time…
In the end, everyone loses the race.

Everyone ends up spending far more of their capital on the social expectations of strangers than they do on themselves and their families.  This happens because arbitrary aggregate expectations become their expectations.  To be trapped in a perpetual cycle of desperation is the price of letting an impersonal mass society define one’s personal desires.

Unquestioningly following a collective can be a terrible mistake in our complex modern world.   However, most societies throughout history and to the present day are collectivist societies.  Clearly it is not a recipe for disaster.   The destructiveness in this case arises from a specific variety of collectivism.

-A small scale “tribal” level organization has members who know one another and each other’s families.  In such an organization, there is ample incentive for each person to genuinely care for and look out for every other.  Such a collective is a stable foundation for social existence.

-A large scale collective society centers around tight family and clan bonds.  A tribal-like foundation is preserved even if there are hundreds of millions of people.

-In a post-industrial Western style collective, most citizens have no defining tribal type organization to ground them.  Each person is governed by the aggregate whims of millions of strangers.  In such a situation, a million people could all lead each other to disaster.  Each person is helpless to change the situation even if everyone knows on some level that everyone’s frantic struggling means everyone loses.  Collective checkmate!

A tragedy of the lords illustrates the value and even the need for a more Subtle way of thinking.   Simply doing what everyone else is doing is an excellent way to live in poverty while bringing in paychecks larger than anywhere else in the world.  If you’re already earning so much but are still barely getting by are you really earning any more?  Not really.  As your pay increases, increased social expectations cause the cost of living to rise along with it.
Until one insists on self-defining and finding ways to deviate from the expectations, poverty and desperation are the order of existence whether you live in a house or a hut.

Zygmunt blogs at Kingdom of Introversion (and elsewhere).

The Tragedy of the Lords appears here by permission.

[image via Flickr/Creative Commons]

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on 07/25/11 in featured, Society | No Comments | Read More

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