The Tragedy is “the Commons,” Part 2

When the American West was first settled, the vast prairies were shared by ranchers in what was known as the open prairie system. The absence of trees and similar materials made it expensive to build fences, and the scarcity of water made it necessary for livestock to graze over a large area. The open prairie system resulted in numerous problems.

The unfenced livestock had a tendency to roam. For ranchers, this created difficulties in keeping an eye on their herds, making them easy to rustle or fall prey to wolves and cougars. In addition, sheep and cattle often competed for the same grazing areas. As sheep cut the grass closer to the ground, the cattle frequently had little to eat. For farmers, the roaming livestock often caused destruction of their crops. In the 1870s, a relatively simple invention transformed the west. Barbed wire was an inexpensive, easy to install method for enclosing the prairies, that is, to transform the open prairies into private property.

Enclosure allowed farmers to keep livestock out of their crops. It allowed ranchers to improve the quality of their herds by isolating inferior bulls from cows. It allowed sheep and cattle to be segregated. However, enclosure was not welcomed by all. Access to water was crucial, particularly in times of drought, and enclosure often prevented ranchers from obtaining water for their herds. The result was often violent conflict over access to water or prime grazing grounds. But in time, the open prairie system died out.

The problems associated with the open prairie system are typical of the commons. Today, we know this as the tragedy of the commons, which was given its name and gained notice in modern times in an article by Garrett Hardin, an American ecologist.

In 1968, Hardin wrote a highly influential article titled “The Tragedy of the Commons,” in which he examined the problems that inherently arise when property is owned “in common.” Hardin tells the story of a pasture shared by a number of herdsmen:

As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?” This utility has one negative and one positive component….

Adding together the component partial utilities, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another…. 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. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.

In short, when property is owned “in common,” each individual pursues his own short-term profit without regard to the long-term consequences. As each individual does this, the resource is depleted, and eventually, nobody can use the resource.

In the article, Hardin proposed two possible solutions: privatization and government regulation. But Hardin rejected privatization because air and water cannot be easily fenced, implying that fencing, or enclosure, is the only way to establish property rights. Hardin concluded that air and water have been, are, and always will be a part of the commons.

While acknowledging the life-sustaining benefits of recognizing property rights, he claimed that “our particular concept of private property, which deters us from exhausting the positive resources of the earth, favors pollution.” A factory owner, for example, would find no economic benefit to treat his waste, and would simply dump it into the nearby river. Having refused to question his basic premise—that of the commons—Hardin concluded that the only solution is “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon by the majority of the people affected.” In other words, we will actually benefit if we are forced to act contrary to our own independent judgment; we will be better off if we are compelled to put aside our self-interest. How and when that force will be used is to be determined by the majority of those using the resource.

To Hardin, the individual has a moral duty to sacrifice his own interests and desires to those of the majority. This is the morality of altruism, a term coined by the French philosopher Auguste Comte.

According to altruism, you have a moral obligation to place the welfare and needs of others before your own; you have a moral duty to serve others. Altruism, according to Comte,

only recognises duties, duties of all to all. Placing itself, as it does, at the social point of view, it cannot tolerate the notion of rights, for such notion rests on individualism. We are born under a load of obligations of every kind, obligations to our predecessors, to our successors, to our contemporaries. After our birth these obligations increase or accumulate, for it is some time before we can return any service…. Rights, then, in the case of man, are as absurd as they are immoral.

To Comte, the individual has no right to live his life in the pursuit of his own personal happiness. Instead, the individual has a duty to satisfy the obligations imposed upon him by others.

Hardin agrees, arguing for “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon by the majority of the people affected.” The individual, he believes, should be forced to meet obligations imposed upon him by the collective—the majority.

In response to criticisms that this would stifle freedom and violate rights, Hardin claimed that private property itself “involves the infringement of somebody’s personal liberty.” For example, if I refuse to allow you to graze your cattle in my pasture, I have violated your liberty to do as you please. To Hardin, freedom means a license to do anything one pleases, and since this is nothing more than anarchy, we must have restrictions on freedom. According to Hardin, our choice is: freedom and ruin, or controls and paradise. The only issue up for debate is: who will be coerced and for what purpose? And to determine that, we will have a vote.

However, freedom is not a license to do anything you want. Freedom is the absence of government coercion. It means a social context in which you can act according to your own judgment, so long as you respect the rights of others to do the same. It means that you can act as you choose, but you cannot use force or fraud against others. Contrary to Hardin, prohibitions on the initiation of force, such as robbery and murder, do not limit your freedom. Robbery and murder violate the rights of other individuals by forcing them to act contrary to their judgment, and nobody has a right to violate the rights of others.

During the 1960s, Americans had legitimate concerns about air and water pollution. Hardin’s article was highly influential and helped shape the political discourse. Few challenged his basic premises, and both conservatives and leftists jumped on the environmental bandwagon. The short-term result was the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 (under a Republican administration). The long-term result has been the steady and consistent growth of government controls and regulations to protect the environment—the commons.

While virtually nobody questioned Hardin’s basic premise, there were those who disputed his conclusions. It wasn’t long before intellectuals began offering an “alternative” to Hardin’s proposal of “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon.”

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