Saturday, December 6, 2008

On "The Tragedy of the Commons" by Ray Mangum

“The Tragedy of the Commons”, is the title of a 1968 essay by Garrett Hardin. It refers to the phenomena whereby public or collective ownership of resources leads not to conservation but rather degradation. It is often referenced in debates over environmental resources, either to argue for stricter government controls over public resources, or for their privatization. Although it is now brought up almost exclusively in discussions over the use of land or water, it is generally forgotten that the main argument of the original essay is that citizens should relinquish their liberty in reproductive matters. Libertarians often invoking Hardin in the name of privatization forget this fact as well as that Hardin argued in favor of more government regulation.
While I find the general dilemma Hardin examines to be a real one, I find some problems with the specifics of his argument, as well as his conclusion.

Where a resource is in high demand and can be freely accessed by anyone, the resource eventually becomes degraded and depleted. This principle was identified at least as early as Aristotle, who critiques the communism of Plato in his Politics, noting that, "that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. Every one thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest." This is ironic, since it is usually the private sector which is accused of ruining everything with its greed, and it is argued that putting matters into the hands of some sort of collective body elevates it into a higher, more altruistic sphere. Hardin uses the example of a pasture collectively used by herders for their cattle to graze, with the positive effect of increasing the stock of cattle for each herder, but the negative effect of the gradual degradation of the pasture. Since, with each head of cattle a herder adds, he reaps all of the benefit, while the negative effect of the land degradation is spread out among all, each herder will be inclined to maximize his use rather than use it efficiently. It is essentially the inversion of Adam Smith’s famous “invisible hand” argument for free trade, where individuals, motivated only by self-interest, promote a good to the public which was no part of his intention. It is important to remember that the invisible hand phenomenon (often caricatured as “greed is good”, most memorably by Michael Douglas as corporate raider Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s film Wall Street) only works its beneficial effect within a legal framework of private property rights. The exact opposite occurs under a regime of collective ownership. Hardin puts it in fairly bleak terms: “Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit--in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all”.

We can all likely understand the tragedy in common-sense terms. In an episode of “The Office”, for instance, Pam becomes outraged at how filthy the microwave that everyone in the Office uses has become. Nobody is assigned to clean it, but using it is essentially cost-free. Only Pam is concerned, but she won’t do it herself, because- well, why should she, if nobody else will? And why should they?

Pollution as well as depletion is the result of the Tragedy of the Commons, the latter resulting when individuals take a good out of a public resource for their own benefit (without having to bear the full brunt of the cost), and the former when they put a negative in. There are only three possible solutions to this problem: 1) privatization of the commons, 2) regulation of the commons by a governing body, or 3) some combination of the two. Hardin says of these solutions, “They are all objectionable”, but strongly favors regulation. I argue for the first option, because it is the most just, allows for the maximum of human freedom, and gives us the greatest potential for adapting and creating new solutions to problems concerning resources. I argue the second is coercive, and is therefore neither just nor allows much freedom, and that it creates new problems even as it attempts to solve this ancient one. Where solution number one is not feasible, I prefer solution number three, though I am not enthusiastic about it.

Garrett Hardin argues that coercion is the only way out of the tragedy of the commons. We must “legislate temperance”. He readily concedes that his regulations are coercions, but says “The only kind of coercion I recommend is mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon by the majority of the people affected”. This statement is nonsensical. Any action or exchange mutually agreed upon is not coercion, by the very definition; it is a free activity in a market. It would therefore be coercion only for the minority affected, not the majority. Hardin says, “To say that we mutually agree to coercion is not to say that we are required to enjoy it,” and he uses the example of taxes, which we do not enjoy, but to which we assent. But think of a market exchange for a moment instead. I might not enjoy paying two and a half bucks for a gallon of milk. I would probably prefer having the milk for nothing. But the fact that I buy the gallon of milk proves that I prefer having the milk to having my two and a half bucks, and that the grocer prefers my two and a half bucks to keeping the gallon of milk. Otherwise, the exchange does not take place. I cannot get the milk if I pay less than two and a half bucks: this is coercion by Hardin’s extremely odd definition. Now back to the example of taxes. I might prefer the services they pay for rather than keeping my income, but I might not. The only thing this exchange says is that I prefer paying taxes than going to jail. Therefore the real exchange is paying a portion of my income for not going to jail. Now let’s say that, as Hardin thinks, both of these situations are coercions (which he seems to be confusing with limitations or provisos). What is the difference between them? In the coercions Hardin sanctions, they are agreed to by a majority of the persons affected. In the market scenario, they are agreed to by 100 percent. Like many people who say they don’t mind paying taxes, indeed are proud to, Hardin makes no argument as to why it is legitimate for a majority to make decisions which are binding upon a minority. He does not invoke any Social Contract theories or Utilitarian arguments (especially since his paper argues that Bentham’s goal of “the greatest good for the greatest number” is impossible). He seems to think it is self-evident that what a majority deems bad should be forcibly abolished.

Resources which are controlled by a government are said to be “public”. The “public” is, in theory, everyone, or at least everyone recognized by the government as a citizen. Does this mean that everyone has equal and open access to public resources? Nowhere is this the case. Public resources are controlled by a governing body. Regulation in a democracy is at base a political game, a mix of ideology and rent-seeking, with various special interests competing to influence the rules, skewing them to their own advantage. Regulations tighten or relax depending on which party is in power. The view of the State’s “neutrality” needs to be seriously questioned.

Perhaps the greatest contradiction of Hardin’s essay is that while it is generally perceived that the value of government regulation comes from its being presided over by disinterested technocrats, Hardin actually admits of “no technical solution” to the problem. What he wants is a moral transformation. And yet the weakness of the old Malthusian fallacy that unlimited human reproduction is a recipe for disaster comes from an implicit analogy between humans and other animals such as cattle, which merely eat, sleep and reproduce, with neither moral nor rational capacity to asses the future consequences of actions. While I believe a capitalistic organization of society increases the future-orientation of actions, I think that even in such a primitive communal situation as Hardin describes people would recognize some future consequences, and come to some arrangement for management of resources, if not the most efficient one. It should at least be pointed out that Hardin’s example of the communal pasture is hypothetical, not historical.

He also says that “Space is no escape.” Why? He gives no reason. The universe is enormous, and we have no way of knowing what technologies to navigate it may be produced in the future. Hardin and other Malthusians condemn us to a lowly earthbound existence. Of course his statement, “A finite world can support only a finite population; therefore, population growth must eventually equal zero,” is logically unassailable. But how far in the future is this “eventual”? Malthusians always see it just around the corner, and they are usually wrong. Eventually, I will die, and so will everyone else. Eventually, the universe itself will cease to exist. This is no reason for such short-term pessimism. Applications and extensions of Hardin’s theory have been used extensively by libertarians, particularly by economists of the Austrian school. Many argue that the financial crisis is a kind of commons problem, where profits (the benefits of a commons) are privatized, but losses (the monetary degradation of the commons) are socialized. Hans-Hermann Hoppe, while not explicitly invoking Hardin or the commons, makes a very similar argument about government in his book Democracy: The God that Failed, where he presents the controversial thesis that democracy is actually inferior to monarchy because in the former government is an un-owned resource and its use is temporary and (at least theoretically) open-entry, leading to gradual increase in degradation and exploitation. All that said, the original essay is thought provoking and well worth reading. It can be found online here: Also see Murray Rothbard’s “Law, Property Rights and Air Pollution” (, for a private-property solution to the tragedy, as well as a number of “free-market environmentalist” resources at For the kind of “fundamental extension in morality” that Hardin recommends, see Herschell Elliot and Richard D. Lamm’s article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “A Moral Code for a Finite World” (at, and coming to a college near you).

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