The FINANCIAL -- In
Georgia today and in Europe in the past, villages owned pastures where
every shepherd and cattle-herder in the community could take his
Grazing on these pastures was free and unrestricted. This land,
owned by all villagers jointly, is traditionally referred to as the
“commons” (in the last years, the term has been extended to also refer
to free-to-use internet content).
The access to common land is unregulated, and consequently the villagers utilize on this resource as much as they can. Due to the heavy overuse, the common land in villages has usually the worst conceivable quality. It is not given any break for regeneration, the grass gets completely eaten up, and there may not even be enough seeds left for replenishment in springtime.
In the economic literature, the observation that common land suffers from overuse is known as the “Tragedy of the Commons”. It was first described by the American ecologist Garrett Hardin in 1968. The rational user of a common, Hardin argued, makes use of the resource until the benefits of its use equal its cost – which in case of a common is zero. Therefore the common will suffer from overuse until there is hardly any economic value left.
If, contrarily, the piece of land would be owned by one individual farmer, he would take into account that he needs to feed his animals from that land in the next year as well. Therefore, he would make sure the quality of the pasture does not deteriorate in the long run. Yet in case of common land, the beneficiaries of a preservation of the resource would be all farmers in the village – thus, if a farmer would adopt a more restrictive usage of the resource, he would share the advantage but bear the full cost of his action. And because each user ignores the costs imposed on others, individual decisions cumulate to a tragic overuse and the destruction of the common.
In Hardin’s opinion, the problem could be solved only by "either socialism or the privatism of free enterprise.” In socialism, the government would administer the common land (as well as all other productive capital) and plan the production so that there would be no overuse. Likewise, if all land was owned privately, the problem of overuse would not occur, as overuse is not in line with profit maximization.
Hardin’s viewpoint was criticized by the American economist and 2009 Nobel Prize laureate Elinor Ostrom and her coauthors in a 1999 article (“Revisiting the Commons: Local Lessons, Global Challenges”, Science 284). Surveying international experiences, they found that government ownership and private property management are often themselves subjects to failures. In order to tackle the Tragedy of the Commons, they propose an extended and more comprehensive set of responses. Their insights are inspired by the observation that people in rural communities have often themselves come up with creative and surprising solutions to the Tragedy of the Commons. Ostrom did not look at Georgia, but if she would have done that, she might have found great evidence for her hypothesis. It seems as if in our country villagers found an ingenious way to circumvent the Tragedy of the Commons.
THE COMMONS BELONG TO THE GODS
Georgian culture boasts with a treasure of old myths and beliefs. The famous professor of English literature Joseph Campbell, praised for his work in the fields of comparative mythology and comparative religion, held the view that the main functions of myths is to validate and maintain the moral system that prevails in a society. A set of generally accepted rights and wrongs and proprieties and improprieties can prevent a society from drifting into chaos. At the same time, it can foster cooperation and – as I believe – it can be instrumental in solving the Tragedy of the Commons.
As mentioned, Hardin proposed to solve the Tragedy of the Common by assigning private property rights, simply leaving no “common” resources. In Georgia, these property rights were indeed assigned, but not to villagers, but to their gods.
Georgians grow up with the myth of Dali, the goddess of hunting and the “lady of stones and animals”, worshipped mainly in Svaneti. Likewise, Georgian myths tell about the figure of Ochopintre, the spirit of the forest and protector of wild animals. In Samegrelo, people believed in Tkashmapa, another queen of forests and wild animals.
Traditionally, before a Georgian hunter set off to kill wild animals, he was required to pray to Dali, Tkashmapa, or Ochopintre and ask for permission to kill their living property. These deities were the ones who had “property rights” on wild animals, and so the wild animals actually were not really a common resource. The deities might become quite dangerous if annoyed, and the hunters expected to face dire consequences if they did not obtain permission to kill an animal.
Tkashmapa, the Megrelian queen of forests used her beautiful golden hair for suffocating humans who were cutting young trees in the forests. Likewise, Dali and Ochopintre were boiling if hunters killed the offspring of wild animals. Some areas of Georgia had taboos that prevented overuse. In the Racha region, a hunter was not permitted to kill more than three big animals during one hunt. A village was harshly punishing somebody who did not abide by this rule. In Svaneti and Khevsureti, a hunter who had killed 100 big beasts in his life (like bears and wild oxen) had to quit his hunting career and bury his gun.
Many Georgians grew up with the fairy tales about Dali and the like, but they may not have realized the economic rationale behind these stories: preventing the Tragedy of the Commons.
THE WISDOM OF MYTHS
Myths are not created by particular individuals; rather, they form over many generations, undergoing modifications whenever they are forwarded, similar to the popular children’s game “Chinese Whispers”. Why is there so much wisdom in these myths then?
The answer is evolution. Myths determine the rules a group adheres to, and those groups who have irrational or detrimental myths are disadvantaged to groups that believe in beneficial myths. The extinction of the Scythians, a tribe living in the Northern Caucasus, was certainly accelerated by the tradition of Scythian women to mutilate their breasts. Likewise, the Skoptsy, followers of a bizarre but highly popular cult in Imperial Russia, today cannot be found anymore. The habit of Skoptsy men to castrate themselves may have played a role in their disappearance.
On the other hand, some religions were so successful in spreading over the world because they urge their followers to reproduce at high rates (and typically forbid the use of contraceptives). The discipline of applying evolutionary principles to human ideas is called memetics; it was first formulated by the English biologist Richard Dawkins and has found many contributors ever since.
The Georgian myths are the predecessors of the modern institutional settings of our society (of course, there were many other influences as well). Myths provide lively evidence of how people coexisted and were maintaining certain social order in old times. Are there “modern myths” that play a similar role today?