Read The Transition as a part of this series.
One of the greatest embarrassments of free market thought, among the many, is an essay called the Tragedy Of The Commons written in 1968 by professor of biology Garrett Hardin. It demonstrates the difficulties capitalists ideologues have with their ideology’s anti-democratic nature and origins.
The commons originally referred to land which was owned communally or which was shared by all. It may have been the lord’s estate but the peasant had rights to the land to collect wood and graze cattle among other things. But Hardin does deserve credit for expanding the definition of commons to include resources, the air, etc.
How influential is this essay? From a 1989 World Bank Discussion Paper (p.6):
For some time now, Hardin’s allegory of the “tragedy” has had remarkable currency among researchers and development practitioners. Not only has it become the dominant paradigm within which social scientists assess natural resource issues, but it appears explicitly and implicitly in the formulation of many programs and projects and in other beliefs and prejudices derived from it.
But even the World Bank had to distance itself from this absurd “theory”. From the abstract of the same paper:
Resource degradation in the developing countries, while incorrectly attributed to “common property systems” intrinsically, actually originates in the dissolution of local-level institutional arrangements whose very purpose was to give rise to resource use patterns that were sustainable. Natural resource deterioration is also occurring widely outside the boundaries of common property systems, under private property and state property regimes. … While this has been referred to as the “tragedy of the commons” it is, in reality, the “tragedy of open access.”
Since its publication, and despite its uninformed content, “Tragedy” has been widely cited by Our fellow capital apologists to support the ruling class agenda. This is only in keeping with the tradition of propping up pro-ruling class regimes with Establishment propaganda. Nor, as we shall see, has this buffoonery stopped many of Our esteemed academicians, especially in the economics and political science “disciplines”, to cite the essay without much concern for the facts involved.
One does not even need much assistance from the World Bank or competent scholars to discard “Tragedy” as nonsense. Mere commonsense and independence of mind can see through it quite easily.
Ostensibly, Hardin’s essay is on the “population problem”. He calls it a “no technical solution problem”, meaning that it can not be solved by mere technical adjustments or science. Then he goes on to justify his view with crude rationalism.
A finite world can support only a finite population; therefore, population growth must eventually equal zero.”… When this condition is met, what will be the situation of mankind? Specifically, can Bentham’s goal of “the greatest good for the greatest number” be realized?
No—for two reasons, each sufficient by itself. The first is a theoretical one. It is not mathematically possible to maximize for two (or more) variables at the same time. This was clearly stated by von Neumann and Morgenstern (3), but the principle is implicit in the theory of partial differential equations, dating back at least to D’Alembert (1717-1783).
The second reason must be read in its entirety as well:
To live, any organism must have a source of energy (for example, food). This energy is utilized for two purposes: mere maintenance and work. For man, maintenance of life requires about 1600 kilocalories a day (“maintenance calories”). Anything that he does over and above merely staying alive will be defined as work, and is supported by “work calories” which he takes in. Work calories are used not only for what we call work in common speech; they are also required for all forms of enjoyment, from swimming and automobile racing to playing music and writing poetry. If our goal is to maximize population it is obvious what we must do: We must make the work calories per person approach as close to zero as possible. No gourmet meals, no vacations, no sports, no music, no literature, no art. … I think that everyone will grant, without argument or proof, that maximizing population does not maximize goods. Bentham’s goal is impossible.
This is purportedly the reason why happiness cannot come to a majority of society. Hardin provides excellent examples of the practical use of “guilt” society and the shriveled doormat ego. With an inbred tendency to self-deprivation and insecurity, the lower order individual easily accepts that society cannot pursue the greatest good for the greatest number because it “is not mathematically possible to maximize for two (or more) variables at the same time.” If anyone discovers the formula please do inform the authorities.
In order to fit his favored mathematical maxim Hardin turns Bentham’s goal of spreading maximum “happiness” within the population into a desire to maximize population. Professor Hardin ends his reasoning as only a ruling class sycophant can. Translated from the profit logic: “if your goal is to irresponsibly have more and more kids, you will have to be punished with a life of misery, therefore a happy harmonious society is not possible. Embrace the best you’re going to get.”
After convincing himself that there can be nothing but misery for the irresponsible breeding masses Hardin goes on:
We want the maximum good per person; but what is good? To one person it is wilderness, to another it is ski lodges for thousands. To one it is estuaries to nourish ducks for hunters to shoot; to another it is factory land. Comparing one good with another is, we usually say, impossible because goods are incommensurable. Incommensurables cannot be compared.
Theoretically this may be true; but in real life incommensurables are commensurable.
Are the “wilderness” and a “ski lodges for thousands” commensurables goods? Can you have a ski lodge without a wilderness? Is sacrificing the environment for a factory necessary? To the ruling class there is no doubt, or We may not be doing such things. All the same, these “choices” Hardin confines us to are asinine. Many do not appear to be legitimate options for choice in the first place. Should I destroy the land for a bit more profit? Should we deregulate or safeguard the economy? Should I starve my kids or pay out the necessary funds to feed them? When the imperative is to accumulate power and wealth these questions become legitimate. Social health is an option when it comes to the ruling class agenda.
The lack of connection to reality is glaring. Nature and politics are not to be found in this Victorian theorizing. An honest understanding of nature tells us a harmonious society is possible and that its integrity is vital for Our survival. Politics tells us it’s not possible. “Tragedy of the Commons” is a prime example. The “problem” faced by ruling class society is not one of inexorable maxims and forces of nature, but one of who dominates the dominant political will.
Forgive us dear reader, perhaps it is because We are not scientific persons, that We find this essay of the “Commons” rather unconvincing to say the least — and we are not far from the beginning! We simply marvel at how such a farce can be taken so seriously by those who have no stake in believing it.
How, We ask, don’t the masses seize upon this obvious, lame attempt at justify ruling class prerogatives to liberate themselves? And much of it is voluntarily accepted to boot! It is amazing. The willful denial and ignorance of the masses is truly the 9th Wonder of the World.
We in the ruling class would have none of it, of course. We would scoff, “Are you kidding? You want Us to subordinate Ourselves based on this? You must be daft.” We must pay respects to the Supreme Executive on Our near perfect domination of society. Unfortunately, it is Our suicide by success.
We will proceed on to Part II the “Commons” in the next post.