TRUTH OR Myth? Tragedy of the Commons
A PARADISE LOST, THE RURAL COMMONS that ALL VILLAGERS SHARED....
Everybody's talking about this article, THE TRAGEDY OF THE COMMONS, which has been reprinted in 111 different magazines! In preface, to understand the article, and the distaff side, which is the MYTH of the Tragedy, Imagine the field above being co-owned by the villagers in a rural English valley. When it's dinner time, who can tell whose cow should provide the meat? What if Wicked Wenslas kills two cows and his clan ate a stack of steaks every night. Wonderful Wendy milks her cows and makes cheese and doesn't kill but Wenslas eats his way through the entire commons. Wendy's going to be un-incentivized to plow, mow, seed, harvest, carry sheaves and feed the livestock as she observes Wenslas pigging out.
Liberterians use this argument to prove that the post FDR SOCIALIST society is like the communal, village Green system and it just doesn't work. Actually it worked very well not only when FDR had to rescue America from Wall Street in 1929, but it worked back 300 years ago in the green hills of Britain. Then, England invented the ENCLOSURES and took the commons away from the villages. The analogue to today's situation is, we post Marxists tax our workers a third of their income to pay for the steaks of these fat, abusive, lazy Wenslas lot and Workers are getting pissed.
Ever heard of a taxing principle related to basic, human psychology that says there's a Laffer Curve, a point where taxing becomes so onerous, men are no longer MOTIVATED to work?. The allegation, (maybe a myth) says that 'welfare disencourages human enterprise which might appear in non recipients.' "Poor-doles and food stamps work against the vigor, ambition, pep and integrity of the rest of a capitalist society. Workers with brains do not want to be helping a lot of mental defectives to breed at some incremental rate." The story goes: "you can't tax enterprising citizens and take that money and give it to lazy bums. You do neither group a favor." Or "Mankind will never really be into sharing as in the village commons of 300 yrs ago. Not now, in the day of private property ownership, monogamy and incentivization like being able to leave one's heirs piles of a loving Daddy's surplus"
Anti-tax Liberterians claim that the measure of a man's heart is that "He was MEANT to be SELFISH." Basic Ayn Randism. A man will really work hard for his family if you don't tax him, but if you tax him and give a third of his income to some lazy fat guy, some welfare Barbara, and then tax his Estate when heirs get it, workers aren't motivated to make the supreme effort that say a Steve Jobs made or a Thomas Edison. The corollary is, "If you penalize high earners, making them carry the slums on their back, you'll drive them right out of the country."
The much reprinted 'Hardin' article purports that socialism cannot work, as it creates slackers who live off poor- house doles as if these were the good life personified. Immoral bums have it so good with 'entitlements' that they never bother to work. They just kick back, suck off the village teat and breed their defectives incrementally. A Welfare society which has the free time for crime.
The myth also goes that Corporations do better at being neat and frugal, deliberate, well motivated and into supplying the village with real wealth. So don't punish (tax) them for their enterprise.
There are ecological co-theories. Tree Huggers say " Capitalist factory owners have no incentive to be kind to the land, the trees, the water supply, because they will not survive in business if they don't maximize short-term profit. If fracking and ethanol promises bigger and faster profits than letting centuries-old rain forests stand, the trees will fall. " We're not sure as nobody has seen a village in charge of its own resources. The big money is corporative and they'll frack and crack as they wish. Rarely will the EPA stop them.
Economist/ author R.K MOORE says "a community that shares fields and forests has a strong incentive to protect them to the best of its ability, even if that means not maximizing current production, because those resources will be essential to the community's survival for centuries to come." But such communities as will come up against a major corporation rarely exist. Communities smell money when a corporation comes near. We see it now with fracking battles. So, those are the combatants, let's look at the Liberterian article reprinted all those times.
THE SHARED COMMONS IS NOT A MESS! MYTH!
Do shared resources get misused and overused? Is community ownership of land, forests, and fisheries a guaranteed road to ecological disaster? Is privatization the only way to protect the environment and end Third World poverty? Most economists and development planners will answer "yes" -- and for proof they will point to the most influential article ever written on those important questions. Since its publication in Science in December 1968, "The Tragedy of the Commons" has been anthologized in at least 111 books, making it one of the most-reprinted articles ever to appear in any scientific journal. It is also one of the most-quoted: a recent Google search found "about 302,000" results for the phrase "tragedy of the commons." For 40 years it has been, in the words of a World Bank Discussion Paper, "the dominant paradigm within which social scientists assess natural resource issues" It has been used time and again to justify stealing indigenous peoples' lands, privatizing health care and other social services, giving corporations "tradable permits" to pollute the air and water, and much more. NOTE: Making this view similar to Thomas Malthus' theory that resources are finite, populations grow at an astounding, incremental speed & soon everyone will be living shoulder to shoulder & the planet will be in famine and plague.
Noted anthropologist Dr. G.N. Appell (1995: 34-5) writes that the article "has been embraced as a sacred text
by scholars and professionals in the practice of designing futures for others and imposing their own economic and environmental rationality on other social systems of which they have incomplete understanding and knowledge." Like most sacred texts, "The Tragedy of the Commons" is more often cited than read. As we will see, although its title sounds authoritative and scientific, it fell far short of science.
Garrett Hardin hatches a myth
The author of "The Tragedy of the Commons" was Garrett Hardin, a
University of California professor who until then was best known as the
author of a biology textbook that argued for "control of the breeding" of
"genetically defective" people (Hardin 1966: 707). In his 1968 essay he
argued that communities that share resources inevitably pave the way for
their own destruction; instead of wealth for all, there is wealth for none.
He is essentially a MALTHUSIAN. An Elitist and verrry Darwinian!
He based his argument on a story (myth) about the commons in rural England.
(The term "commons" was used in England to refer to the shared pastures,
fields, forests, irrigation systems, and other resources that were found
in many rural areas until well into the 1800s. Similar communal farming
arrangements existed in most of Europe, and they still exist today in
various forms around the world, particularly in indigenous communities.)
"Picture a pasture open to all," Hardin wrote. A herdsmen who wants to
expand his personal herd will calculate that the cost of additional
grazing (reduced food for all animals, rapid soil depletion) will be
divided among all, but he alone will get the benefit of having more
cattle to sell.
Inevitably, "the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible
course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd." But
every "rational herdsman" will do the same thing, so the commons is soon
overstocked and overgrazed to the point where it supports no animals at all.
Hardin used the word "tragedy" as Aristotle did, to refer to a dramatic
outcome that is the inevitable but unplanned result of a character's
actions. He called the destruction of the commons through overuse a
tragedy not because it is sad, but because it is the inevitable result
of shared use of the pasture. "Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all."
Where's the Evidence?
Given the subsequent influence of Hardin's essay, it's shocking to
realize that he provided no evidence at all to support his sweeping
conclusions. He claimed that the "tragedy" was inevitable -- but he
didn't show that it had happened even once.
Hardin simply ignored what actually happens in a real commons:
self-regulation by the communities involved. One such process was
described years earlier in Friedrich Engels' account of the "mark," the
form taken by commons-based communities in parts of pre-capitalist
The use of arable and meadowlands was under the supervision and direction
of the community. . . .
Just as the share of each member in so much of the mark as was
distributed was of equal size, so was his share also in the use of the
"common mark." The nature of this use was determined by the members of
the community as a whole. . . .
At fixed times and, if necessary, more frequently, they met in the open
air to discuss the affairs of the mark and to sit in judgment upon
breaches of regulations and disputes concerning the mark. (Engels 1892)
Historians and other scholars have broadly confirmed Engels' description
of communal management of shared resources. A summary of recent research
What existed in fact was not a "tragedy of the commons" but rather a
triumph: that for hundreds of years -- and perhaps thousands, although
written records do not exist to prove the longer era -- land was managed
successfully by communities. (Cox 1985: 60)
Part of that self-regulation process was known in England as "stinting"
-- establishing limits for the number of cows, pigs, sheep, and other
livestock that each commoner could graze on the common pasture. Such
"stints" protected the land from overuse (a concept that experienced
farmers understood long before Hardin arrived) and allowed the community
to allocate resources according to its own concepts of fairness.
The only significant cases of overstocking found by the leading modern
expert on the English commons involved wealthy landowners who
deliberately put too many animals onto the pasture in order to weaken
their much poorer neighbors' position in disputes over the enclosure
(privatization) of common lands (Neeson 1993: 156).
Hardin assumed that peasant farmers are unable to change their behavior
in the face of certain disaster. But in the real world, small farmers,
fishers, and others have created their own institutions and rules for
preserving resources and ensuring that the commons community survived
through good years and bad.
Why Does the Herder Want More?
Hardin's argument started with the unproven assertion that herdsmen
always want to expand their herds: "It is to be expected that each
herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. . .
. As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain."
In short, Hardin's conclusion was predetermined by his assumptions. "It
is to be expected" that each herdsman will try to maximize the size of
his herd -- and each one does exactly that. It's a circular argument
that proves nothing.
Hardin assumed that human nature is selfish and unchanging and that
society is just an assemblage of self-interested individuals who don't
care about the impact of their actions on the community. The same idea,
explicitly or implicitly, is a fundamental component of mainstream
(i.e., pro-capitalist) economic theory.
All the evidence (not to mention common sense) shows that this is
absurd: people are social beings, and society is much more than the
arithmetic sum of its members. Even capitalist society, which rewards
the most anti-social behavior, has not crushed human cooperation and
solidarity. The very fact that for centuries "rational herdsmen" did not
overgraze the commons disproves Hardin's most fundamental assumptions --
but that hasn't stopped him or his disciples from erecting policy
castles on foundations of sand.
Even if the herdsman wanted to behave as Hardin described, he couldn't
do so unless certain conditions existed.
There would have to be a market for the cattle, and he would have to be
focused on producing for that market, not for local consumption. He
would have to have enough capital to buy the additional cattle and the
fodder they would need in winter. He would have to be able to hire
workers to care for the larger herd, build bigger barns, etc. And his
desire for profit would have to outweigh his interest in the long-term
survival of his community.
In short, Hardin didn't describe the behavior of herdsmen in
pre-capitalist farming communities -- he described the behavior of
capitalists operating in a capitalist economy. The universal human
nature that he claimed would always destroy common resources is actually
the profit-driven "grow or die" behavior of corporations.
Will Private Ownership Do Better?
That leads us to another fatal flaw in Hardin's argument: in addition to
providing no evidence that maintaining the commons will inevitably
destroy the environment, he offered no justification for his opinion
that privatization would save it. Once again he simply presented his own
prejudices as fact:
We must admit that our legal system of private property plus inheritance
is unjust -- but we put up with it because we are not convinced, at the
moment, that anyone has invented a better system. The alternative of the
commons is too horrifying to contemplate. Injustice is preferable to
The implication is that private owners will do a better job of caring
for the environment because they want to preserve the value of their
assets. In reality, scholars and activists have documented scores of
cases in which the division and privatization of communally managed
lands had disastrous results. Privatizing the commons has repeatedly led
to deforestation, soil erosion and depletion, overuse of fertilizers and
pesticides, and the ruin of ecosystems.
As Karl Marx wrote, nature requires long cycles of birth, development,
and regeneration, but capitalism requires short-term returns.
The entire spirit of capitalist production, which is oriented towards
the most immediate monetary profits, stands in contradiction to
agriculture, which has to concern itself with the whole gamut of
permanent conditions of life required by the chain of human generations.
A striking illustration of this is furnished by the forests, which are
only rarely managed in a way more or less corresponding to the interests
of society as a whole. . . . (Marx 1998: 611n)
Contrary to Hardin's claims, a community that shares fields and forests
has a strong incentive to protect them to the best of its ability, even
if that means not maximizing current production, because those resources
will be essential to the community's survival for centuries to come.
Capitalist owners have the opposite incentive, because they will not
survive in business if they don't maximize short-term profit. If ethanol
promises bigger and faster profits than centuries-old rain forests, the
trees will fall.
This focus on short-term gain has reached a point of appalling absurdity
in recent best-selling books by Bjorn Lomborg, William Nordhaus, and
others, who argue that it is irrational to spend money to stop
greenhouse gas emissions today, because the payoff is too far in the
future. Other investments, they say, will produce much better returns,
Community management isn't an infallible way of protecting shared
resources: some communities have mismanaged common resources, and some
commons may have been overused to extinction. But no commons-based
community has capitalism's built-in drive to put current profits ahead
of the well-being of future generations.
A Politically Useful Myth
The truly appalling thing about "The Tragedy of the Commons" is not its
lack of evidence or logic -- badly researched and argued articles are
not unknown in academic journals. What's shocking is the fact that this
piece of reactionary nonsense has been hailed as a brilliant analysis of
the causes of human suffering and environmental destruction, and adopted
as a basis for social policy by supposed experts ranging from economists
and environmentalists to governments and United Nations agencies.
Despite being refuted again and again, it is still used today to support
private ownership and uncontrolled markets as sure-fire roads to
The success of Hardin's argument reflects its usefulness as a
pseudo-scientific explanation of global poverty and inequality, an
explanation that doesn't question the dominant social and political
order. It confirms the prejudices of those in power: logical and factual
errors are nothing compared to the very attractive (to the rich) claim
that the poor are responsible for their own poverty. The fact that
Hardin's argument also blames the poor for ecological destruction is a
Hardin's essay has been widely used as an ideological response to
anti-imperialist movements in the Third World and discontent among
indigenous and other oppressed peoples everywhere in the world.
Hardin's fable was taken up by the gathering forces of neo-liberal
reaction in the 1970s, and his essay became the "scientific" foundation
of World Bank and IMF policies, viz. enclosure of commons and
privatization of public property. . . . The message is clear: we must
never treat the earth as a "common treasury." We must be ruthless and
greedy or else we will perish. (Boal 2007)
In Canada, conservative lobbyists use arguments derived from Hardin's
political tract to explain away poverty on First Nations' reserves and
to argue for further dismantling of indigenous communities. A study
published by the influential Fraser Institute urges privatization of
[T]hese large amounts of land, with their attendant natural resources,
will never yield their maximum benefit to Canada's native people as long
as they are held as collective property subject to political management.
. . . [C]ollective property is the path of poverty, and private property
is the path of prosperity. (Fraser 2002: 16-17)
This isn't just right-wing posturing. Canada's federal government, which
has refused to sign the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of
Indigenous Peoples, announced in 2007 that it will "develop approaches
to support the development of individual property ownership on reserve"
and created a $300 million fund to do just that.
In Hardin's world, poverty has nothing to do with centuries of racism,
colonialism, and exploitation: poverty is inevitable and natural in all
times and places, the product of immutable human nature. The poor bring
it on themselves by having too many babies and clinging to
The tragedy of the commons is a useful political myth -- a
scientific-sounding way of saying that there is no alternative to the
dominant world order.
Stripped of excess verbiage, Hardin's essay asserted, without proof,
that human beings are helpless prisoners of biology and the market.
Unless restrained, we will inevitably destroy our communities and
environment for a few extra pennies of profit. There is nothing we can
do can to make the world better or more just.
In 1844 Friedrich Engels described a similar argument as a "repulsive
blasphemy against man and nature." Those words
apply with full force to the myth of the tragedy of the commons.
* * * * * *
Appell, G. N. 1993. "Hardin's Myth of the Commons: The Tragedy of
Boal, Iain. 2007. "Interview: Specters of Malthus: Scarcity, Poverty,
Apocalypse." CounterPunch, September 11, 2007.
Bromley, Daniel W. and Cernea Michael M. 1989. "The Management of Common
Property Natural Resources: Some
Conceptual and Operational Fallacies." World Bank Discussion Paper.
Cox, Susan Jane Buck. 1985. "No Tragedy on the Commons." Environmental
Engels, Friedrich. 1892. "The Mark."
Engels, Friedrich. 1844. Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy.
Fraser Institute. 2002. Individual Property Rights on Canadian Indian
Hardin, Garrett. 1966. Biology: Its Principles and Implications. Second
edition. San Francisco. W.H. Freeman & Co.
Hardin, Garrett. 1968. "The Tragedy of the Commons."
Marx, Karl.  1998. Marx EngelsCollected Works Vol. 37 (Capital,
Vol. 3). New York: International Publishers
Neeson, J.M. 1993. Commoners: Common Right, Enclosure and Social Change
in England, 1700-1820. Cambridge
Ian Angus is editor of Climate and Capitalism and an associate editor of Socialist Voice
a Canadian history opinion site.
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