The Berry Bikes: A Lesson in Private Property
An Inexpensive Example of the Tragedy of the Commons
OCTOBER 01, 1999 by E. FRANK STEPHENSON, DANIEL L. ALBAN
Daniel Alban is a senior with an interdisciplinary major at Berry College, in Mount Berry, Georgia. Frank Stephenson is an assistant professor of economics in Berry College’s Campbell School of Business.
Berry College is a private college located on a large campus adjacent to Rome, Georgia. In March 1998, the Berry College Student Government Association (SGA) used student activity funds to purchase 20 bicycles for student use on campus.
The bright red bicycles, each with an identifying plate reading “Berry Bike,” were available to all students on a “first-come, first-served” basis, making them a common property resource. In spite of the relatively favorable environment for common-property bicycles at Berry, it took less than two months for many of the bikes to be lost, stolen, or abused. This story illustrates the importance of private property rights and the folly of common property.
The SGA purchased 20 Schwinn Cruiser bicycles for $190 each. The rationale for spending student fees was that the distance between some buildings on campus made getting to classes on time difficult. Several factors would seem to favor the plan. The campus is relatively self-contained; it is unlikely that townspeople would enter college property to use the bikes or that students would ride them off campus where they could be abandoned, lost, or stolen. Berry students probably have a more cooperative ethic than students at many other colleges. For example, there is relatively high participation in student organizations, many of which are campus religious groups. Observers report a tendency for students there to split the difference during in-class market simulation exercises, rather than compete to maximize personal gain, suggesting that Berry students are not unusually self-centered.
Moreover, the student body is relatively small. Anyone who abused a bicycle could be readily identified, and the students harmed by having bicycles mistreated would not be strangers. These factors would presumably deter would-be vandals. Finally, and directly pertinent, privately owned bicycles were not being lost or abused.
Unfortunately, the results of the Berry bike project were dismal. It took little time for the misuse of the bicycles to become evident. Writing in the April 2, 1998, Campus Carrier, student Liz Hill reported that “Chains have been broken, tires punctured, handlebars bent, and seats torn” after “only a couple of weeks.” Recognizing the underlying cause of the mistreatment, Hill implored students to “treat the bikes as if they were your own property.” Evidently, her column spurred little change.
On April 21, SGA President M. Lynsey Morris e-mailed all students that “It has come to our attention here in the SGA office that many students are failing to take care of the Berry Bikes. . . . These bicycles are top quality and should not be bending and breaking the way they are. The [SGA] officers and other students have seen many people riding the bikes at absurd speeds, doing tricks, and just abusing the bicycles in general.” She too requested that students “treat [the bikes] as you would your personal property.” Morris’s appeal apparently met with little success; a survey at the end of the semester revealed that four of the 20 bikes were lost or stolen and 11 were in a state of disrepair—a 75 percent casualty rate in a mere two months.
Undeterred, the SGA had the bicycles repaired over the summer recess and resumed the program in the fall. It soon became apparent that the abuse would continue. The September 10 Campus Carrier editorialized about “mangled corpses of twisted red metal that lie about campus” and concluded that “Perhaps SGA put too much trust in human nature and Berry students’ respect for property.” Was that the problem? Or was it that the SGA did not understand the role of incentives? Only a month into the new semester, the SGA suspended the program with the intention of leasing the remaining bicycles to students on a semester-by-semester basis, thereby alleviating the problems associated with common-property resources.
Although it may seem cynical or impolitic to point out the failure of the project, we think just the opposite. A primary goal of college is for students to learn, both in and out of the classroom. At a cost of about $2 out of each student’s activity fees, the failed Berry bike experiment provides an inexpensive example of the “tragedy of the commons” that students can remember vividly for the rest of their lives.