As a graduate student, I decided to spend my first term at UC Berkeley at the University Students’ Cooperative Association (USCA). The USCA is the largest student housing cooperative in North America modeled after the Rochdale Principles. The USCA is student run and student owned. In all we had about 20 houses and 4 apartment complexes housing about 2,000 students.
The house that I lived in is called Cloyne Court. It used to be a hotel and is even listed as a national historical monument. Cloyne Court housed about 150 students in about 80 single-, double-, and triple-occupancy rooms.
All household tasks such as cooking, cleaning, washing, and maintenance was done by the residents. In addition to our rent, we had to do five hours of ‘workshift’ every week. Like all other houses of the USCA, Cloyne Court had one common kitchen and one dinning hall for the 150 residents. Food was stocked in a huge pantry and in a walk-in freezer the size of a small apartment.
Under the best of circumstances, cooking is not an easy job. But for college students who can barely cook for themselves, the task of cooking for 150 people is well-near impossible. So dinner time was a real challenge. Around 6 pm, the dining hall would be crowded with students waiting for the food to show up from the kitchen.
The word may go around that there wasn’t much food that got cooked on some day. Perhaps the cooks weren’t very good and burnt half the stuff. Suddenly, there would be rush for the food as it was being brought out. All pretense of waiting for your turn would be dropped and pushing and shoving to get at the food would be so violent that half the food would end up on the floor.
If you were not quick, you were dead. If not dead, at least you’d have to order pizza to avoid starving.
During my one year at Cloyne Court, I learnt more economics than I could have imagined. I saw the tragedy of the commons revealed in all its stark reality. I understood why the Soviet Union collapsed. I learnt the common property problem and the problem of free-ridership.
I moved to a smaller house the next year. It was called the Convent because it used to be one before the USCA bought it. The Convent had 20 people and was restricted to graduate students. It was pretty well organized. Those who volunteered to cook were really into cooking. For 20 people, it was easy to cook enough that there was little chance of food running out. We all sat very calmly at the table while the food was passed around very politely. We had intelligent stimulating conversation at dinner. We had self-imposed rules: not taking any more than what we could eat, and cleaning up after ourselves.
The contrast between Cloyne Court and the Convent was stark and revealing.