Political Column — The Tragedy of the Moths
Humans have a unique ability to desire the impossible. Complaints are one demonstration of this. Much of what politicians do is an attempt to avoid complaints. However, having no complaints is an impossibility. This is even more so in politics than in business because for the most part people cannot choose to disengage from a government like they can with most businesses. If you don’t like a product then “Buy from someone else.” usually works. If you don’t like your government “Move.” usually isn’t so easy or simple. Some people like to pretend it is when they’re talking about someone else while ignoring the complexities of leaving family and friends, finding work, government paperwork and approvals, changing schools, knowing the environment and history of a place, and arranging financing and logistics. Even on a divisive issue like spraying for gypsy/spongy moths it’s unlikely for many people to say “I’m moving to Midland County because they spray for moths.”, or “I’m leaving Midland County because they spray for moths.” So the disagreement continues.
In human societies there are always shared resources. Air and water are two things that can’t be unshared. Other things are more variable. Roads are a good example. If there’s a private road that people contribute money to for maintenance then the most personally beneficial thing for someone to do is to get the most use out of the road and to contribute the least money and resources, even to the point of just not paying. And this does happen. (This is a narrow view because it will ruin that person’s relationships, decrease the overall goodwill of the community, is a dereliction of an acquired moral obligation that will darken the spirit of the person, and seed resentment that will eventually collapse the society, but I won’t go into that in this article.) This situation is a tragedy of the commons with a free-rider problem. There are ways to solve some of these problems. In this example an association could be formed where in the contract when buying the property you have to contribute a certain amount, or even limiting the number or type of vehicles you can use on the road. Or, some people would want it to go through the government, government being a giant tragedy of the commons itself. In that case they would get a petition to start the clunky process of establishing a special assessment tax. Or, people may attempt to get the road designated as a public road that would be taken care of by the county road commission. Each of these potential solutions generates different problems of its own.
Moths are viewed by some as a similar public problem with similar potential solutions, but there are differences. Many people are annoyed by the moths. A fair number of people want a treatment if they don’t have to pay for it. Some people are willing to pay for a treatment. Some people don’t want treatment because of health and environmental concerns. Others want treatment because of health and environmental concerns. Right now the bacteria used for treatment is considered of no danger to humans. If that will still be considered true in a decade or two is less certain, of course. Unintended consequences is another frequent tragedy in human decision making. Some people have a lot of moths, some people don’t. Some people have a lot of land and trees, others don’t. There are more than one or two perspectives on this issue.
Financially the decision is about tradeoffs. If money is spent on one thing, it cannot be spent on another thing. The economy is not zero-sum because things are created and new wealth comes into being, which can be mutually beneficially exchanged increasing the well-being of everyone. However, expending a limited set of money is zero-sum, so not just cost but opportunity cost must be taken into consideration. This applies in the case of millages too. If the government was honest then promises of spending more money would be balanced by saying that taxes would also need to be increased. But, that doesn’t sell. So throughout history the government has always been increasing spending and decreasing taxes, and such magical miracles do seem to garner support from a large number of people. I think such false promises are immoral.
Let’s say there are three options for millages: moth treatment, road upgrades, and operating the fire department. Is it realistic to think that there’s so much support for all three of these that the vast majority or even majority of people in Dalton Township want all three of these added to their taxes? No, and each will individually have supporters and detractors. So things need to be prioritized and put into a contextualized value scale from most important in this place at this time to least important. Treatment for moths reduces a temporary nuisance but can’t get rid of them, and from what I’ve heard it doesn’t even reduce the number of years of the natural cycle that they will go through, that comes about from other natural environmental factors. Roads have more of a lasting impact, but because of the expense you could be paying the tax for a decade or more without your road getting upgraded, which is obviously an issue. The fire department has significantly increased calls and keeping their rate at what it was 20 years ago when the last operating millage was voted on puts them in a strained position. Pick one. To me the obvious choice is to support the fire department operations, while the township continues to work within the budget for maintaining roads. These are the priorities.
This doesn’t mean nothing can be done. Not everything needs to be centralized through the government. It’s often beneficial to decentralize, sometimes away from the government entirely because of the value of local knowledge and the communication of price signals. I’ve heard of people in the area getting Btk treatments on their own with success, spraying from the air for large properties and from the ground for small properties. This is how most other pests from insects to rodents are dealt with, the property owner decides if they will do something and what that will be. This is what is being done in the area.
Problems are large and small, wide and narrow. This effects through whom and at what level the problem should be addressed. Whichever choice is made there will be some disagreement. In many cases referring back to individual choice is a good solution, and that is what I’m proposing.