Photocopy paper is now running dangerously low at our school. Apparently there is a possibility that there will be no more paper to complete the year. I can't imagine how hard it is to budget for a new year and this post isn't a criticism of that process. Instead, economics seeks to understand how people behave when resources are scare and there are so many demands on them. I think this is a classic case of the Tragedy of the Commons.
The tragedy occurs when my consumption rivals yours and I don't consider how my actions affect you. In the case of paper at our school, I see a few teachers photocopying off large sums of materials for their classes leaving precious little for the rest of us. It's interesting to observe how some react to the scarcity of paper. Some are nonchalant. some are furious, and some just buy their own paper.
Scarcity doesn't affect everyone in the same way--at least in their reactions to it. From a macro perspective, I don't see how anyone can make a policy the benefits every member of society. That is why, I believe, Jeremy Bentham believe that the action that gives the most good to the most people was the moral action. Mr. Bentham's philosophy is the basis for Utilitarianism and the decision-making model that economists use.
The Tragedy of the Commons isn't just paper. There is competition for seating in the teacher's lounge during lunch time. Passing between classes is very difficult. As long as many individuals share a resource and no one owns the resource, individuals will use the resource until the benefit of the resource is zero.