Tragedy of the Commons [Updated]

[Update: On Monday, February 13, Jacobin ran an article called “The National Park Service Goes Rogue,” about the nascent resistance movement in the National Park Service and other environmental organizations. It’s an interesting article, going into the history of the conservation movement, and how it hasn’t necessarily always been on the side of the little guys.

The article says that “Stealing the [National Park Service] name and enlisting it in the growing resistance to privatization, resource extraction, climate denial, and racism, the Rogue NPS models a National Park Service that stands up for a concept of nature as common.” The word “Common” reminded us of something.

Premiere Of Sony Pictures Releasing's "Death At A Funeral" - Arrivals

Picture unrelated.

We want to take this opportunity to re-run an article we published recently. We would be curious to know how the socialist-leaning Jacobin would feel about Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons,” but based on their stance on resource extraction, for example, we have a feeling they wouldn’t have a problem with it. Anyway, enjoy! –The Editorial Board]

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


4 replies

  1. Reading suggestion for anyone interested on tragedies of commons: The Market for Reproductive Rights ( [short blog post].


    • This is very interesting, and it’s a solution I haven’t seen before (which I’ll only half-jokingly call “market eugenics”). I’ve said, privately, for a long time, that we need to adjust the way we think about population growth, but usually the other way; we’re living longer than ever before, which is putting unprecedented strain on our financial, economic, and political infrastructure. So to say we need fresh ideas isn’t strange to me. I’ll also preface by saying I’m not familiar with the politics and economics of India, which, given context, I’m giving to understand is the intended location of implementation.

      That said, here’s the problem I see. From the article: “The moment you don’t have the permit, you get sterilized immediately.”

      I’ll be polite and say that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever read. You can either have a fair market system or you can have a dystopian hellscape. The point of a market system is that it rewards effort and incentivizes good behavior. All markets offer greater advantages to people with more resources, but the whole premise is that everyone can expend effort and better their situation. As written, the rich are able to buy children and the poor are immediately sterilized as soon as they sell their 1/2 permit. But that’s not a market, because now that poor person can’t work to buy a kid from someone else. You see what I’m saying?

      There are also a hell of a lot of problems, from a fairness and justice perspective, of picking winners and losers like this. Any suggestion–and I mean ANY suggestion–of population control that even IMPLIES preference for one group over another is absolutely inhumane. It violates the principle of fairness, and by letting the powerful gain at the expense of the powerless is almost the definition of injustice. So I dunno, dude. Interesting idea, but I can’t get on board.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: