Turning the “Tragedy of the Commons” on its head

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. Please leave any comments there.

In 1968, Garrett Hardin wrote a classic essay entitled the “Tragedy of the Commons” which he begins by arguing that as population grows, territory must be allocated in order to prevent its ruin, that it will otherwise be overrun; then that:

The rational man finds that his share of the cost of the wastes he discharges into the commons is less than the cost of purifying his wastes before releasing them. Since this is true for everyone, we are locked into a system of “fouling our own nest,” so long as we behave only as independent, rational, free enterprisers.

This, Hardin argues, is less of a problem when the population is small and nature can absorb the waste. “But as population became denser, the natural chemical and biological recycling processes became overloaded, calling for a redefinition of property rights.”

Hardin eventually reaches a dilemma:

If we ask a man who is exploiting a commons to desist “in the name of conscience,” what are we saying to him? . . . Sooner or later, consciously or subconsciously, he senses that he has received two communications, and that they are contradictory: 1. (intended communication) “If you don’t do as we ask, we will openly condemn you for not acting like a responsible citizen”; 2. (the unintended communication) “If you do behave as we ask, we will secretly condemn you for a simpleton who can be shamed into standing aside while the rest of us exploit the commons.”

Hardin’s solution proceeds from an analogy:

The social arrangements that produce responsibility are arrangements that create coercion, of some sort. Consider bank robbing. The man who takes money from a bank acts as if the bank were a commons. How do we prevent such action? Certainly not by trying to control his behavior solely by a verbal appeal to his sense of responsibility. Rather than rely on propaganda we follow Frankel’s lead and insist that a bank is not a commons; we seek the definite social arrangements that will keep it from becoming a commons. That we thereby infringe on the freedom of would-be robbers we neither deny nor regret.

The morality of bank robbing is particularly easy to understand because we accept complete prohibition of this activity. We are willing to say “Thou shalt not rob banks,” without providing for exceptions. But temperance also can be created by coercion. Taxing is a good coercive device. To keep downtown shoppers temperate in their use of parking space we introduce parking meters for short periods, and traffic fines for longer ones. We need not actually forbid a citizen to park as long as he wants to; we need merely make it increasingly expensive for him to do so. Not prohibition, but carefully biased options are what we offer him. A Madison Avenue man might call this persuasion; I prefer the greater candor of the word coercion.

Thus, removing what Proudhon (in What is Property?) saw as our common birthright from the “commons” becomes a means of rationing its use and preventing catastrophes such as the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico. In Hardin’s words,

An alternative to the commons need not be perfectly just to be preferable. . . . 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 total ruin.

Hardin concludes that “the commons, if justifiable at all, is justifiable only under conditions of low-population density. As the human population has increased, the commons has had to be abandoned in one aspect after another.”

That Hardin extends his logic even to a necessity to restrain the freedom to reproduce, a problem I touch upon elsewhere in another context, is not my point here. Rather, I am drawn to this essay from Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne, Jr., who wrote:

“Do something!” citizens shout to a government charged with protecting the environment in and around a Gulf of Mexico that is nobody’s private property. Yet the government, it seems, can’t do much of anything because the means of containing this unprecedented anomalous event are entirely in the hands of a private company. It was trusted to know what it was doing with complicated equipment that, it turns out, BP either didn’t understand very well or was willing to use recklessly.

But government is ill-equipped for the task; as Dionne observes, “we have disempowered government and handed vast responsibilities over to a private sector that will never see protecting the public interest as its primary task.” If we are to believe Hardin, placing the entire Gulf of Mexico in BP’s hands–let us not even begin to contemplate the complications which this might entail–in some sort of capitalist Libertarian wet (and now very oily) dream would ensure that BP would have some interest in protecting the Gulf against the catastrophe which has now occurred.

Or we might infer that the government process of regulating oil extraction withdraws the Gulf from the commons and, as Dionne suggests, the failure was in an emasculated government. But we must also consider what C. Wright Mills, who seems to have proceeded from his observations of the military-industrial complex and of a condition of permanent war, saw in 1958, that

In so far as the power elite is composed of men of similar origin and education, of similar career and style of life, their unity may be said to rest upon the fact that they are of similar social type, and to lead to the fact of their easy intermingling. . . . It achieves a more solid culmination in the fact of the interchangeability of positions between the three dominant institutional orders [the political, economic, and military].

Mills distinguished between three elites, but observing that they shared a common interest, he also pointed to their unity:

Their unity, however, does not rest solely upon psycholgical similarity and social intermingling, nor entirely upon the structural blending or commanding positions and common interests. At times it is the unity of a more explicit co-ordination.

As I observed in my introduction to a Robert Reich column (posted as a comment), in which Reich observed, “It’s not the purpose of the private sector to protect the public,”

There can be no meaningful separation between the economic and political elites because they are, for all practical purposes, the same people, which means that any expectation that government will protect citizens against the rapacity of big business is in effect the expectation that a fox can be relied upon to guard a hen house, as is illustrated even with the Obama administration’s regulation of oil wells, even in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe.

Dionne, Reich, and many others assume a possibility of good governance to impose a sufficiently high price on BP’s misbehavior as to deter it. And this assumes that government officials will be motivated to serve as a check on the private sector. But if anything is clear amidst the murky Gulf waters, it is that the Minerals Management Service relationship with oil companies was entirely too cozy, just as Mills might have predicted, back in 1958, long before Ronald Reagan was elected president, long before the deregulation fad that has proven so disastrous in so many ways.

So how, then, can the allocation of property ever act to prevent its misuse? How can a rationing of the commons avoid “total ruin?” How can a fiction that deprives us of our common birthright immunize us from the consequences of a thoroughly man-made disaster? In light of the Deepwater Horizon, it would seem perverse to do as Hardin seems to recommend, to reward oil companies with an even more direct interest.

The problem is more fundamental; it reaches into the paradigm by which we humans arrange our affairs. It is in the assumption that this planet and all its resources exist solely for our use, simply by virtue of our presence here upon this planet. It is in a hierarchy of humans over nature and of humans over the planet.

Such foolishness carries a cost. It is in hindsight that we see the folly of conducting drilling operations in the way we have. But one wonders if we will even have the luxury of hindsight to see how our attitudes toward the planet compound environmental disaster upon environmental disaster. Frank Fenner, who helped defeat smallpox, thinks we will be extinct within 100 years. No one, it appears, can refute him but with an unfounded hope that loses plausibility with the passing of every day.