Monday, October 04, 2004

Tragedy of the Commons

Garrett Hardin died recently. He was a pioneer who did not fit nicely into either world of either the Left or the Right. Alas, his writings were lucid and, frankly, irrebutable.

Hardin popularized the term “Tragedy of the Commons,” shorthand for the phenomenon that, left unchecked, individuals’ uses of public places or “commons” leads to the destruction of the commons. In some ways, there is a yin-yang relationship between the Invisible Hand the tragedy of the commons.

By “commons,” Hardin meant common places whose use (and abuse) is free to all. Tragedy was used to mean "the solemnity of the remorseless working of things." Other economists might explain Hardin's concepts as addressing whether the true costs of the usage are not reflected in the free price - the "externalities chapter in MacroEconomics that you didn't read.

As a result, companies find it beneficial to dump wastes into rivers and oceans, because from the company’s viewpoint, it is rational to clean up the company’s factory by slightly polluting the oceans, instead of spoiling the company factory by retaining the waste.

Similarly, public lands get over-grazed and become useless. Hardin described pictures of northern Africa showed an irregular dark patch, 390 square miles in area. Ground-level investigation revealed a fenced area inside of which there was plenty of grass. Outside, the ground cover had been devastated. The fenced area was private property, and each year the private owners moved their animals to a new section. (The fallow periods gave the sections time to recover from the grazing) They did so because the owners had an incentive to take care of their land. But outside the ranch, no one owned the land - it was open to nomads and their herds, to use for free. Uncontrolled, the free users grew in number, and ultimately the herds exceeded the natural "carrying capacity" of their environment. The soil of the commons was compacted and eroded, and "weedy" plants, unfit for cattle consumption, replaced good plants. Many cattle died, and so did humans. This is, literally, the “tragedy of the commons.”

Hardin and other commentators focused on things environmental: Over-fishing of oceans; hunting carrier pigeons and buffalo to extinction; and pollution of the air. All these are clear examples of private decisions, left unchecked, resulting in ruination for all.

Even public highway congestion (as opposed to private toll roads) was described by Hardin as inevitable over-use due to the lack of any user fee.

At first blush, you would think that large industrial corporations would tend to be hostile to the Tragedy of the Commons lessons, as anti-pollution laws, forestry logging restrictions and the like are the result. And history is replete with just such opposition.

Greatly simplifying, then, the interests of industrialists would seem to be against Hardin’s theories, as they frustrate Big Industry. If we assume Big Industry is synonymous with the “Right” wing of the political spectrum, then the Right Wing is against Hardin. Similarly, to the extent that the “Right” is deemed to be the partisans who want above all individual liberties, many of such liberties contradict the stewardship ideas inherent in Tragedy thinking.

Again greatly simplifying, the dogma of the “Left Wing” of the political spectrum at its core desires “to each according to his needs, from each according to his abilities” and pursues greater public ownership of things. Yet the Tragedy of the Commons is no friend of the Left Wing. The theories of Hardin focus on managing the commons by private ownership, where stewardship is at its most rational. Rationing the goods of the Earth via private property and user fees is antithetical to many on the Left, as somehow elitist and discriminatory.

Perhaps it is the Caspar Milquetoast in me, but any pair of glasses for viewing the world of politics which offends both the Right Wing and the Left Wing, is worth further review.