Un-Tragic Commons?

In his Out of the Wreckage, George Monbiot cites the famous 1968 article of Garrett Hardin on the “Tragedy of the Commons.”

In Monbiot’s summary, Hardin argued that “common property will always be destroyed, because the gain that individuals make by over-exploiting it will outweigh the loss they suffer as a result of its over-use.” Consider a herdsman using common land for pasture: “With every cow the man added to his herds, he could gain more than he lost: he would be one cow richer, while the community as a whole would bear the cost of the extra cow” (96).

Monbiot doesn’t buy it. Hardin, he argues, “had no practical or even theoretical knowledge of how real common worked.” In particular, he “assumed that individuals can behave as selfishly as they like in the commons, because no one will stop them.” But that’s wrong: “traditional commons are closely regulated by the people who control them” (96-7).

Hardin might have pointed to the oceans as an example of the ravages of commons: “The oceans . . . managed by no one, are over-fished and polluted, as every user tries to extract as much from them as possible, and the costs of their exploitation are borne by the world as a whole.” The problem with this example is that the sea doesn’t function like a commons. It’s a “free-for-all” (97; see my post on William Langewiesche’s The Outlaw Sea).

Hardin’s arguments apply to commons that attempt to operate with out community (Monbiot, 97). That is, commons end tragically when they are operated by the principles of liberal freedom.

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