The Adventures of Jonathan Gullible, A Free Market Odyssey – Chapter 3-A Commons Tragedy

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As you may recall, we last left Jonathan Gullible on a remote Pacific island after his boat was tossed about by a terrific storm. One day …

The trail widened a bit as it cut through the dense jungle. The midday sun burned hot overhead when Jonathan found a small lake. As he scooped up some water to refresh himself, Jonathan heard someone’s voice warning, “I wouldn’t drink the water if I were you.”


Jonathan looked around and saw an old man kneeling at the shore, cleaning a few tiny fish on a plank. Beside him were a basket, reel, and three poles propped in the mud, each dangling a line in the water. “Is the fishing good?” inquired Jonathan politely.

Without bothering to look up, the man replied, somewhat crossly, “Nope. These little critters were all I got today.” He proceeded to fillet the fish and to drop them into a hot skillet that was set over a smoldering fire. The fish sizzling in the pan smelled delicious. Jonathan spotted the rough yellow-striped cat that he had followed already picking at scraps of fish. His mouth watered.

Jonathan, who considered himself an accomplished fisherman, asked, “What did you use for bait?”

The man looked up at Jonathan thoughtfully. “Ain’t nothing wrong with my bait, sonny. I’ve caught the best of what’s left in this here lake.”

Sensing a solitary mood in this fisherman, Jonathan thought he might learn more by just remaining silent awhile. Eventually, the old fisherman beckoned him to sit beside the fire to share some fish and a little bread. Jonathan devoured his meal hungrily, though he felt guilty about taking a portion of this man’s meager lunch. After they finished, Jonathan kept quiet and, sure enough, the old man began to talk.

“Years ago there were some really big fish to catch here,” the man said wistfully. “But they’ve all been caught. Now the little ones are all that’s left.”

“But the little ones will grow, won’t they?” asked Jonathan. He stared at the lush grasses growing in the shallow waters along the shore where many fish might lurk.

“Nah. People take all the fish, even the little ones. Not only that, people dump garbage into the far end of the lake. See that thick scum along the far side?”

Jonathan looked perplexed. “Why do others take your fish and dump trash in your lake?”

“Oh, no,” said the fisherman, “this isn’t my lake. It belongs to everyone, just like the forests and the streams.”

“These fish belong to everyone,” Jonathan paused, “including me?” He began to feel a little less guilty about sharing a meal that he had no part in making.

“Not exactly,” the man replied. “What belongs to everyone really belongs to no one, that is, until a fish bites my hook. Then it’s mine.”

“I don’t get it,” said Jonathan, frowning in confusion. Half speaking to himself, he repeated, “The fish belong to everyone, which means that they really belong to no one, until one bites your hook. Then, the fish is yours? But do you do anything to take care of the fish or to help them grow?”

“Of course not,” the man said with a snort of derision. “Why should I care for the fish just so someone else can come over here at any time and catch ’em? If someone else gets the fish or pollutes the lake with garbage, then there goes all my effort!”

With a mournful glance at the water, the old fisherman added sadly, “I wish I really did own the lake. Then I’d make sure that the fish were well tended. I’d care for the lake just like the cattleman who manages the ranch over in the next valley. I’d breed the strongest, fattest fish and you can bet that no fish rustlers or garbage dumpers would get past me. I’d make sure … .”

“Who manages the lake now?” interrupted Jonathan.

The weathered face of the fisherman grew hard. “The lake is run by the Council of Lords. Every four years, the Lords are elected to the Council. Then the Council appoints a manager and pays him from my taxes. The fish manager is supposed to watch out for too much fishing and dumping. Funny thing is, friends of the Lords get to fish and dump as they please.”

The two sat and watched the wind stir a pattern of ripples across the silver lake. Jonathan noticed the yellow cat sitting erect, sniffing and staring at a fish head on his plate. He tossed the head and the cat caught it neatly with one hooked paw. This feline looked tough, with one ear torn from some old battle.

Mulling the old fisherman