Tragedy of the Commons


Last week, I wrote that, “The Georgia Wonk doesn’t have that much faith in human decision-making abilities. We point to the ‘Tragedy of the Commons,’ the economic theory that states that individuals making rational decisions to pursue their own self-interests can result in harm to the greater collective whole.” I want to spend just a little time today talking about that theory, and how it relates to my greater conception of the role of the State.

Comedy and Tragedy (of the Commons)

Garrett Hardin was an American ecologist with a particular focus on the effects of human overpopulation. Now, I want to get this out of the way early: any time you start talking about overpopulation, things get complicated. So I want to say now, before we get too far into this, that I’m not endorsing all of what Hardin is saying. He’s going to make some pretty bold claims, in particular:

“Freedom To Breed Is Intolerable” and “If we love the truth we must openly deny the validity of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”.

Not the most popular opinion.

I want to establish at the outset that I disavow these views. Do I think overpopulation is a problem? Yes, of course. But I think it is a problem better addressed by education and access to birth control, not through rejection of the Universal Declaration of the Human Rights (I’m not a supervillain, after all).

Anyway, Hardin wrote “The Tragedy of the Commons” in Science in 1968. In it, he makes a series of statements regarding the morality of action with regards to shared resources. Of specific interest to us, and in regards to what I wrote last week, he said that (emphasis mine):

We can make little progress…until we explicitly exorcize the spirit of Adam Smith in the field of practical demography. In economic affairs, The Wealth of Nations (1776) popularized the “invisible hand,” the idea that an individual who “intends only his own gain,” is, as it were, “led by an invisible hand to promote … the public interest” (5). Adam Smith did not assert that this was invariably true, and perhaps neither did any of his followers. But he contributed to a dominant tendency of thought that has ever since interfered with positive action based on rational analysis, namely, the tendency to assume that decisions reached individually will, in fact, be the best decisions for an entire society. 

Hardin pushes back against this notion, in effect arguing that, when individuals are utilizing shared resources, the benefits of exploiting those resources are discrete while the costs are distributed. For example, consider a manufacturing plant, one of several based near a large river. This plant can increase its personal profits by increasing production, but production will result in dumping toxins into the adjacent waterway. The benefits for the plant far outweigh the costs; it receives all the profits from its increase in production, while the pollutants in the water are spread to every other plant. Economic theory states that it is rational for the plant to continue to increase production. Hardin, however, argues that (using the example of herdsmen instead of factories):

But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. 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.

He ultimately concludes that “[f]reedom in a commons brings ruin to all.” That is the tragedy of the commons: that each individual actor pursuing rational ends among shared resources will eventually lead to the depletion or corruption of those resources.

Freedom Through Coercion

Last week, I wrote that, “to prevent disaster, we all need to recognize a final arbiter of decisions, a force above the individual that can recognize the community impact of individual action. This is the State. And it is true that the State compels non-voluntary action.”

In other words, sometimes we have to be compelled (or, to use Hardin’s term, coerced) to behave in a way that benefits the community as a whole, even if that compulsion results in less-than-ideal outcomes for ourselves. Writing about shared resources (in this case, the environment), Hardin says, “the air and waters surrounding us cannot readily be fenced, and so the tragedy of the commons as a cesspool must be prevented by different means, by coercive laws or taxing devices that make it cheaper for the polluter to treat his pollutants than to discharge them untreated.”

This is why we need the State (and recall here that I use the State to refer to any force or group with legitimate and appropriate power to enforce law)–because we can do what is best for us and still ruin things for everybody. I’m a huge believer in what Hayek said in Road to Serfdom (and I’m paraphrasing here because I lost my copy in a move), about how regulation necessarily results in decreased efficiency, productivity, and liberty. I am 100% behind Amartya Sen when he writes that “to deny that freedom [freedom to buy and sell how we would like] in general would be in itself a major failing of a society.”

But I do not believe, nor will I accept the argument, that our  society can only flourish when we are left entirely to our own devices. We are being in community, all of us, and to deny our connection and our inherent relationship denies every moral system ever devised, from Jesus on up. We are not meant to be alone; we are meant to live together. And if we have to be compelled to live that way, so be it–it’s better to pay taxes than to die choking on our own poisons.


Categories: Dispatch, Reading List

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4 replies

  1. The state creates the problem: welfare state; then it sells the solution: more taxes, forever.

    I think you may be misreading that author.


    • I don’t want to claim that Hardin is advocating for a powerful state–rather, that’s what I see as the solution to the problem of rational independent actors creating irrational outcomes.

      Also–I don’t necessarily accept the premise that the “welfare state” is the problem. Misused, it definitely can be, and has been; you can hold people in bondage by threatening to without benefits, etc. But that’s a risk whenever there’s a power imbalance of any kind. I see that as less of an indictment of the welfare state and more of a reminder as to why people need to be able to hold their governments accountable.


      • Some sort of collective action may be necessary, one extreme case being a government, but humans could do better than blindly using the same strategy every time, even if on the past it hasn’t worked very well.

        People can still hold others accountable by threatening to economically boycott those who endangers the commons to extract profit for themselves. e.g. You extracted more than your quota, then I won’t sell to your or buy from you, and I will spread that fact to others so they can do the same until you stop and repent. For a example of that, see the Free Software Foundation. Would you equate a boycott with coercion? I wouldn’t.

        It is possible for people to not contribute enough (free riding) and cause that system to fall apart, yes, but equally with the government, where people don’t spend enough time and effort to select and monitor their delegates and as a result the government fails to fulfill its aim.


      • I’m gonna be purposefully stubborn and say that, yes, I would equate a boycott with coercion, but only because I have a very broad definition of what “coercion” means, and also I don’t think of it as necessarily negative. I think of it as any outside behavior that makes you do something you don’t want to do–a boycott fits that.

        I saw on your site that you’re a libertarian. One of my favorite weird parts of libertarianism is the debate between governance and government, and how the former happens organically and the latter is an imposition, etc. For me, if you can have effective governance without government, you should go for it–but I don’t see that happening often. You’re right, though–blindly using the same strategy isn’t a good plan for the future. My thinking on this could be limited.


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