The Tragedy of the Common Sense

Author: Dinu Koica

A reaction paper to the article “Tragedy of the Commons” by Garret Hardin

Reading the article ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ by Garret Hardin, one must notice the multidisciplinary aspect of it. In his way of building up his argument, the author is borrowing from fields such as neoclassical and behavioral economics, game theory, evolutionary biology, abstract mathematics and psychoanalysis. Hardin even quotes Hegel, the Bible, Nietzsche and Adam Smith. This cocktail of quite heterogeneous knowledge, the mix of hard sciences and humanities with little romantic detours, begs the question – Is Hardin using a unique set of tools to shed new light on the problem of the commons or is he just cherry picking to get to the desired conclusions? The ‘old problem’ identified by Hardin is the one of over-population, an issue defined by Thomas Malthus in 1798. The Malthusian argument being that the exponential (geometrical) growth of the population is an immediate threat to our planet as you can’t have infinite growth on a planet with finite resources; and, as a consequence, the amount of goods that one receives will steadily decline as the number of people will grow.

First of all, it is interesting to point out the absence of demographical or sociological texts in his bibliography, the very fields that specialize in the dynamic of population growth and social phenomena in general; as well as the absence of empirical data sustaining his claims. I will try to track the way Hardin built his argument and see if his conclusions stay strong even without the specialized areas of study or if his claims easily crumble at every other step. Let’s start where the author starts and that’s the identification of a certain class of problems – the problems that have no technical solution. A problem with no technical solutions i.e. it cannot be solved by pursuing advancements in natural science, no scientific breakthrough can help us eliminate it. To make himself clear, the author gives us the example of a tick-tack-toe game that is impossible to win due to the opponent being perfect at the game. In such circumstances there are no technical solutions to win because the opponent is unbeatable therefore there is no ‘technical’ way to win. Later the author, using the Malthusian logic classifies the over-population as a no technical solution problem, the same as the tick-tack-toe example. I will like to point out two things, first the metaphorical way of defining a concept and second the example given by Hardin is purely abstract. The class of ‘no technical solution’ problems is defined by the ideal type of an unbeatable tick-tack-toe game. An imaginary game is the foundation of defining a real issue and moreover, an issue with no desirable solution (you can’t win).

I think it’s important to emphasize this moment because this is the general modus operandi for the author – the abstract example that is transcended through the means of a metaphor to the real world. Apart from being a very useful mechanism to justify beliefs, this example is the starting point for Hardin – something is bound to fail and, in this situation, over-population is a problem outside of scientific technical limits that inevitably will lead to a catastrophe unless we change our perspective on it and tackle it in other ways. I identify the central piece in Hardin’s argument is the idea of inevitability. Of course, it isn’t a nihilistic inevitability in a sense of “we will all die” but, to better understand it, we must follow the author’s take on the commons. In short, the tragedy of the commons lays in the fact that every person sharing a common is compelled to increase his/her part in the common therefore draining it of every resource, natural or otherwise. The tragedy of the commons is introduced using the same mechanism as before. Hardin presents a completely abstract example of a pasture and a ‘rational herdsman’ (that is somehow versed in neoclassical economics). The rational herdsman calculates his utility and arrives at the conclusion that he must increase the number of animals on the pasture and, in the same way, the other rational herdsmen sharing the pasture end up increasing the number of animals; as a consequence, the pasture will be destroyed. This imaginary exercise is given to us to prove the inevitable step by step drainage of resources considered as commons i.e. commons are inherently unsustainable in the case of high population. The metaphorical transition is as follows – we are all rational herdsmen obsessed by utility and the tragic fate of the beautiful pasture is the fate of every common; or, as Hardin eloquently puts it:
“Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit – in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to us all”

Here again we can see the sense of inevitability that drives Hardin’s argument. It is interesting to observe how ‘the tragedy of the commons’ from the beginning becomes the ‘the ruin of the commons’ and, later in the text, transforms into ‘the evil of the commons’. Hardin doesn’t play around with fancy scientific words anymore and uses the straight forward and commonsensical word – evil. The inevitability that the author is preaching finally shapes up, it is the inevitable evil of population growth and free commons that lead us to misery; neither of which has been empirically or historically presented. Hardin argues that the evil in free commons is easily avoided by the means of enclosing them in various ways (tax, merit, etc.) but there is a certain kind of un-enclosable commons such as the air or the oceans. Hardin argues that the evil and inevitable pollution of the air and ocean forces us to change our ethics and perspectives. He arrives at the conclusion that it is justifiable to stop the laissez-faire reproduction i.e. regulating the number of children one can have. For Hardin it is not only justifiable but even mandatory. Following his trail of thought we can understand why Hardin is proposing with such easiness a quite radical thing – once you shape an object of inevitable evil all the other alternatives are better and preferable to it. I claim that this process is not only unscientific but also very dangerous.

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