Saturday, April 20, 2024

The Tragedy of the Commons

First published in the prestigious journal Science in 1968, biologist Garrett Hardin’s paper “The Tragedy of the Commons” is one of the most reprinted articles ever to appear in a scientific journal. The authors of a recent World Bank Discussion Paper called it “the dominant paradigm within which social scientists assess natural resource issues,” while anthropologist G. N. Appell says the paper “has been embraced as a sacred text by scholars and professionals.”5

Well into the 1800s, much of rural England was considered commons — property owned by the king but available to everyone — like the open range in the western United States before the advent of barbed-wire fencing. Using the English commons as his model, Hardin purported to show what happens when a resource is communally owned. He reasoned that in “a pasture open to all… each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible.” Though destructive to the pasture, the herdsman’s selfishness makes good economic sense from his personal perspective. Hardin wrote, “The rational herdsman [will conclude] that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd.” This is the only rational choice because all will share the cost of the degradation to the land from overgrazing, while the profit gained from additional animals will be his alone. Since each individual herdsman will come to the same conclusion, the common ground will inevitably be overgrazed. “Freedom in a commons,” Hardin concluded, “brings ruin to us all.”

Like Malthus’s thoughts on population growth relative to agricultural capacity, Hardin’s argument was a hit because (1) it features an A+B=C simplicity that appears to be inarguably correct; and (2) it is useful in justifying seemingly heartless decisions by entrenched powers. Malthus’s essay, for example, was often cited by British business and political leaders to explain their inaction in the face of widespread poverty in Britain, including the famine of the 1840s in which several million Irish people starved to death (and millions more fled to the United States). Hardin’s articulation of the folly of communal ownership has provided cover repeatedly to those arguing for the privatization of government services and the conquest of native lands.

One other thing Hardin’s elegant argument has in common with that of Malthus: it collapses on contact with reality.

As Canadian author Ian Angus explains, “Hardin simply ignored what actually happens in a real commons: self regulation by the communities involved.” Hardin missed the fact that in small rural communities where population density is low enough that each of the herdsmen knows the others (the actual case in the historical English commons and in ancestral foraging societies), any individual who tries to game the system is quickly found out and punished. Nobel Prizewinning economist Elinor Ostrom’s studies of commons management in small-scale communities led her to conclude that, “all communities have some form of monitoring to gird against cheating or using more than a fair share of the resource.”6

Despite how it’s been spun by economists and others arguing against local resource management, the real tragedy of the commons doesn’t pose a threat to resources controlled by small groups of interdependent individuals. Forget the commons. We need to confront the tragedies of the open seas, skies, rivers, and forests. Fisheries around the world are collapsing because no one has the authority, power, and motivation to stop international fleets from strip-mining waters everybody (and thus, nobody) owns. Toxins from Chinese smokestacks burning illegally mined Russian coal lodge in Korean lungs, while American cars burning Venezuelan petroleum melt glaciers in Greenland.

What allows these chain-linked tragedies is the absence of local, personal shame. The false certainty that comes from applying Malthusian economics, the prisoner’s dilemma, and the tragedy of the commons to pre-agricultural societies requires that we ignore the fine-grain contours of life in small-scale communities where nobody “could have escaped public scrutiny and judgment,” in Rousseau’s words. These tragedies become inevitable only when the group size exceeds our species’ capacity for keeping track of one another, a point that’s come to be known as Dunbar’s number. In primate communities, size definitely matters.

Noticing the importance of grooming behavior in social primates, British anthropologist Robin Dunbar plotted overall group size against the neocortical development of the brain. Using this correlation, he predicted that humans start losing track of who’s doing what to whom when group size hits about 150 individuals. In Dunbar’s words, “The limit imposed by neocortical processing capacity is simply on the number of individuals with whom a stable inter-personal relationship can be maintained.”7 Other anthropologists had arrived at the same number by observing that when group sizes grew much beyond that, they tend to split into two smaller groups. Writing several years before Dunbar’s paper was published in 1992, Marvin Harris noted, “With 50 people per band or 150 per village, everybody knew everybody else intimately, so that the bonding of reciprocal exchange could hold people together. People gave with the expectation of taking and took with the expectation of giving.”8 Recent authors, including Malcolm Gladwell in his best-selling The Tipping Point, have popularized the idea of 150 being a limit to organically functioning groups.

Having evolved in small, intimate bands where everybody knows our name, human beings aren’t very good at dealing with the dubious freedoms conferred by anonymity. When communities grow beyond the point where every individual has at least a passing acquaintance with everyone else, our behavior changes, our choices shift, and our sense of the possible and of the acceptable grows ever more abstract.

The same argument can be made concerning the tragic misunderstanding of human nature that underlies communism: community ownership doesn’t work in large-scale societies where people operate in anonymity. In The Power of Scale, anthropologist John Bodley wrote: “The size of human societies and cultures matters because larger societies will naturally have more concentrated social power. Larger societies will be less democratic than smaller societies, and they will have an unequal distribution of risks and rewards.”9 Right, because the bigger the society is, the less functional shame becomes. When the Berlin Wall came down, jubilant capitalists announced that the essential flaw of communism had been its failure to account for human nature. Well, yes and no. Marx’s fatal error was his failure to appreciate the importance of context. Human nature functions one way in the context of intimate, interdependent societies, but set loose in anonymity, we become a different creature. Neither beast is more nor less human.

Fourth Way

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