The tragedy of the commons: Existential homelessness

I have been discussing the three ways of making a living, one of which is concerned with using the property we have. One good test of my first maxim–using properly what you’ve got–would be the ‘tragedy of the commons.’ In a now famous paper, ‘The Tragedy of the Commons,’ which was originally published in Science in 1968, the biologist and ecologist Garrett Hardin provides the reader with a thought experiment in order to demonstrate how unchecked freedom inevitably results in the destruction of the commons.

Suppose, he writes, that there are herdsmen raising cattle which graze in an open pasture. Suppose further that a time of social stability has been achieved, a time without war or famine or (let us add) disease. The herdsman in question would reason that adding one more animal to his herd would be beneficial to him: the cost will be minimal since it is ‘covered’ by the commons while the gain will be +1. Presumably, he would keep adding cattle since, assuming no death due to overcrowding, he incurs no financial risk in doing so. Meanwhile, all his fellow herdsmen would have reasoned in a similar vein with the result, writes Hardin, that ‘freedom in the commons brings ruin to all.’

Hardin’s solution to the problem of the commons is to advocate for our adopting mutually agreed upon forms of coercion. Onerous taxes on excessively harmful pollutants is one example he proffers. More recent authors–I’m thinking of Sunstein et al.–would take a more moderate line, urging that we ‘nudge’ each agent to do the right thing while avoiding the Scylla and Charybdis of paternalism and libertarianism.

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Using properly what you’ve got: An analysis

One of the three ways of making a living, I have urged, involves ‘using properly what you’ve got.’ In other posts, I have called this Category I. Let me analyze each part of this formulation.

1.) Got. One can get something by (a) finding, (b) taking, or (c) making. One could find truffles in a field. One could forcibly take someone else’s territory. One could make a necklace out of found objects.

2.) What. There are three answers to the ‘what?’ question: (a) the commons, (b) collective property, and (c) private property. If property is concerned with spelling out who has access to and who can do something with the thing at hand (an idea, a parcel of land), then the answer is (a) everyone, provided that each uses the thing responsibly, (b) those who are members, and (c) only the one who owns the thing as well as anyone he permits to partake of it with him.

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Making room for, and sense of, largesse

In his otherwise scathing New York Review of Books review of Jean Starobinski’s Largesse, Ernst Gombrich notes at the outset that the term refers not just to gift giving of any sort but, ‘in a more technical context, [to] the ceremonial scattering of gifts expected from a king or prince on festive occasions.’ Largesse, Starobinski asserts, is an example of an ‘ostentatious gift,’ and we might observe the concept of largesse slowly expanding beyond the realm of kings and princes to include great men and women of wealth: landed gentry, captains of industry, mafia dons, investment billionaires.

Jane Jacobs, in Systems of Survival, and Gombrich in his New York Review of Books review are both quick to point out how often and how easily largesse becomes–or is–a bribe, yet, despite this tendency and this danger, the more basic question remains, ‘How does largesse proper fit into our grasp of our economic relationships?’

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The virtues corresponding to our economic relationships

I have been discussing three ways of making a living, which correspond also to three kinds of economic relationships. Cast as maxims, these ways are:

I. Use what you’ve got.

II. Exchange what’s in hand.

III. Offer what you can.

I. ‘Using what you’ve got’ is a territorial as well as a (for lack of a better word) practical claim. I own a home, and I use it to shelter family members and guests. Or I find some rosemary on my land, and I use it to flavor tonight’s dinner which is served to my wife. Historically, I believe the addressee of ‘use what you’ve got’ is me and mine (tribe, clan, family, community, etc.).

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Why Kickstarter can’t work and other related matters

I now want to begin the slow and steady work of teasing out the implications of this tripartite model of making a living. Here is that schema again:

I. Use what you’ve got.

The ‘getting’ part refers to acquiring something or other. The ‘using’ part may have as its referent land, waste, plants, animals, tools, people, etc.

Examples of using what you’ve got: Hunting and gathering, forcing people into slavery, foraging, subsistence farming, fishing, Skyping, drinking from a well on own’s land, permaculture, mining, drilling for oil, etc.

II. Exchange what’s in hand.

By ‘in hand,’ I mean what is available to me. It could be my skills or ideas; it could be my money or property; it could be stock; it could be my labor; etc.

Examples: buying and selling, providing a service, brokering a deal, creating a patentable product, wage laboring, contracting, bartering/swapping, renting, etc.

III. Offer what you can.

Examples: sharing, giving, borrowing/lending (without interest), requesting, doing a favor, helping (another in need).

NB. I believe this list of examples is complete.

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