An Analysis of Garrett Hardin’s “The Tragedy of the Commons.”

I started Free the Commons! to explore new paradigms for the management of our public lands and environment. My goal is to engage like-minded conservationists in a discussion about the need to rethink our management of the commons.

The event that led me to begin this blog was a rereading of Garrett Hardin’s work “The Tragedy of the Commons.” I recall being shocked upon reading Harden’s essay after so many years. I, along with everyone who cites it, would describe the essay as a critique of environmental policy, using the example of grazers on commonly held pasture as an example. In reality, Hardin’s essay is far from a critique of grazing policy, and frankly has little to do with pollution or land management.

Foremost, Harden’s essay is a critique of overpopulation and an explicit call to abandon the “commons in breeding.” The oft-cited herdsman-open pasture analogy is just that, an analogy. But rather than being an analogy for the dangers of treating the environment as a commons, it is an analogy about the dangers in allowing individual choice in childbearing. For you see, under Hardin’s critique, it is we who are the herdsman, whom he labels the ‘breeders’, and our progeny are the cattle overgrazing the open pastures, which stands in for the Earth.

Harden describes the population problem as a moral (my term) problem rather than as a technical problem. The distinction is that technical problems have solutions based in the natural sciences. Moral problems, on the contrary, require a change in human values or ideas of morality.

Before continuing I offer a contemporary example of a technical as opposed to a moral problem, as I understand Hardin to be using the terms, to help us understand Hardin’s argument. We know that energy generated from coal creates negative externalities in the form of pollution. Let us assume in our simple example that the range of available technical solutions includes improving the capacity of renewables (solar, wind, etc.) to meet our energy requirements, or finding cleaner ways to burn coal. A moral solution, on the other hand, can be thought of as current efforts to convince individuals, by appealing to their reason and conscience, to engage in voluntary energy conservation, thereby reducing pollution levels.

Hardin describes overpopulation as a moral problem because, he argues, there are no technical solutions to the population problem. In our example, let us assume that we have reached the limits of technology, and can neither improve coal fired energy efficiency, nor increase the capacity for renewables to meet our energy demands. Having in our simple example expired the universe of possible technical solutions, we are left to pursue moral solutions to combat pollution. We must change human behavior so that everyone uses less energy, thereby saving the environment. Hardin’s thesis is that overpopulation is a problem with no technical solutions, requiring a change in behavior.

This is where I wish to jump off the sensitive topic of Hardin’s thesis – population control – and instead critique the remainder of Hardin’s argument as it is often applied, as a critique of environmental policy.

Hardin cites Adam Smith’s work, The Wealth of Nations, as establishing the dominant – and to Hardin faulty – theory in public policy that we are rational beings who make individual decisions that collectively lead to the best outcomes for society. It is at this point Hardin employs the pasture analogy: in demonstrating how the rational action of each individual herdsman eventually destroys the pasture for all, Hardin calls for us” to reexamine our individual freedoms to see which ones are defensible.”

Hardin explores the available options as he understands them, which include privatization of the commons, and allocation of the commons based on some method of distribution. He rejects both, not only as they apply to population control but also as a means of addressing pollution. I will note that some writers have latched on to Hardin’s comments regarding private property, citing a few sentences he offers about how private property averted a commons tragedy in food production (by enclosing farm land), and his statement that “our particular concept of private property” favors pollution, in which to read the space to offer new concepts of private property that may result in a technical solution to the pollution problem. I tend to disagree with those who read into Hardin the idea that property rights may address pollution, but I’ll explore this in a later post.

Hardin next rejects ‘appeals to conscience’ as a means of protecting the commons. He states that propaganda will not work; propaganda is only an excuse for us to avoid the hard decisions that are required. He writes that we must abandon the temptation to appeal to independent actions with slogans like ‘responsible parenthood.’

Individual responsibility, Hardin argues, can only be realized through new social arrangements that produce responsibility through coercion. He describes such social arrangements as “mutual coercion mutually agreed upon by the majority of people affected.” He notes that education will be necessary to break the logic of the commons and to avoid cries of the loss of freedom that would accompany any closure of the commons. He forthrightly notes that any enclosure would necessarily infringe on personal liberty, but assuages his guilt (or the guilt of his readers) by noting that “freedom is the recognition of necessity.”

Interestingly, the solution Hardin offers is found midway through his essay, when he writes “We must find ways to legitimate the needed authority of both custodians and the corrective feedbacks.” What Hardin appears to be proposing as a solution is the increased reliance on expert bureaucrats, held accountable only by what he calls corrective feedbacks, defined as the means to keep them honest. It is these bureaucrats who are to “coerce” the population into complying with the new social arrangement.

One may gather an idea of how these expert bureaucrats may govern by bringing together various passages in Hardin’s essay. For instance, Hardin notes that alternatives to the commons problem need not be perfectly just to be preferable. He bemoans our adoption of Adam Smith’s theory of the ‘invisible hand’ which, leading us to believe that individual actions promote the public interest, continues to interfere with “positive action based on rational analysis.” Elsewhere he states that not everyone should have equal rights to the commons. At this point I wonder about his “mutually agreed upon” statement regarding coercion.

I do not wish to paint Hardin in an unnecessarily nefarious light. Clearly, he is concerned about overpopulation and the effects on society and the environment. He writes of realizing greater freedoms by relinquishing our “freedom to breed.”

However, it is the unanswered questions that cause concern: Who are our masters? How are they to be held accountable? And from where do they derive their authority? If, as Hardin argues, we continue individually to act contrary to the interests of society, then who shall act for us?

In conclusion, I read Hardin to argue for governance by expert. In essence, he is a Malthusian technocrat. Technical solutions are not available. Individuals are not capable of making independent decisions which are in the long-term interests of society. Appeals to personal responsibility will fail. Coercion, as applied by rational experts and resulting in the loss of individual liberty, remains the only means of averting ruin and the Tragedy of the Commons.


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