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.

I wonder, at a more basic level, about the assumptions concerning homo economicus and the sort of world he resides in. I believe Hardin is on the right track when he cites overpopulation as the source of our troubles. What overpopulation alludes to, though, is a more pervasive, profounder sense of alienation from a homeland. It seems far-fetched to believe that someone would knowingly foil his homeland, the place where his family, friends, and ancestors dwell, the place where he grew up, and the place where others of his kind will come after him. Temperance, kindly use (Wendell Berry’s fine phrase from The Unsettling of America), self-restraint, and responsibility just are the virtues that would have to be cultivated in order for one’s homeland to continue to be a home.

It becomes easier to imagine this very modern herdsman, one who has read up on his game theory, after the commons has become enclosed, after his ancestors have been exiled through forced migration, after he has become a professional, and after he has gotten used to traveling from place to place in order to find work or advance in a career.

Existentially homeless, he would learn not to care all that much about foiling the public park or the public restroom. What is this place to him? And who will come after him–another stranger? And who will know who sprayed urine on the urinal anyway? In a public place, cleaning up one’s urine has become a service we expect another worker to perform.