Monday, June 18, 2007

A classic: the tragedy of the commons

Every once in a while, it's useful to read or re-read some of the classics. We often hear of "the tragedy of the commons," but how many of us have read the original essay that led to that term? Check out the 1968 essay The Tragedy of the Commons by Garrett Hardin.

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Blogger K arl North said...

Dutifully reread. I also read with interest your posts to the SD forum.

I cannot fault Hardin's ecology, but like many others, I find his social science quaint, if not pathetically elitist. The first tip-off is his uncritical acceptance of Malthus 'law' of exponential population growth (barring coercion). If Malthus had spent more time understanding the longstanding zero population growth of his own British aristocracy, and less in ideological servitude to its interests (in this case abolition of the institution of the poor house), he might not have made such foolish statements about 'inevitable' growth rates in population and agriculture. As is now widely understood, economic security arrests population growth as it has in numerous ruling classes, and education and economic security for women arrests population growth even in relatively low income populations (Kerala, Cuba). The best one can do for Hardin on this point is to excuse him for not being a social scientist. The trouble is, as with Malthus, that Hardin keeps being referenced as if he were one.

Hardin’s other problem, which again many have exposed, is his elitist solution to the tragedy of a resource free-for-all: privatization. Hardin: “The tragedy of the commons as a food basket is averted by private property, or something formally like it”. Indeed, the enclosures he consistently favors, that occurred first in Britain and then increasingly around the world, put property in the hands of private owners, mostly or increasingly of the more privileged classes. He dismisses administrative law, “which is rightly feared for an ancient reason--Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? "Who shall watch the watchers themselves?". Then, perhaps realizing that without administrative law nothing will control the private owners, he invokes a supposed biological superiority of elites: “legal possession should be perfectly correlated with biological inheritance--that those who are biologically more fit to be the custodians of property and power should legally inherit more.” Recognizing that this is a only lesser evil – elites sometimes beget offspring less fit than themselves – he still embraces it because for him there is no alternative.

The ideologists of privatization regularly use Hardin to reject any notion that a commons can be successfully democratically managed in the public interest as a public resource. They do this by conflating his characterization of the commons – a resource free-for-all – with all public administration of resources. This really needs to stop. The real tragedy is mismanagement, be it public or private. Is Hardin’s biological elitism really still worth rereading?

22 November, 2008 14:29  

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