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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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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Our 2 conceptions of work: work as toil vs. work as performance

Yesterday, I wrote about the three ways of making a living, and I still have many implications to spell out. Today, I set this subject off to the side and turn to a related topic, this being our conceptions of work.

I believe that there are only two conceptions that vie and belie each other, that each has been with us roughly since the beginning of human history, and, what is more, that they are in competition with each other in the modern age. I will argue further that although the first conception is more prominent, it is also mistaken. In contrast, the second conception, though rarer, is actually in stride with human excellence.

The first conception is that work is toil to be endured. Evidence for the existence of this conception can be found, already in the form of common sense, in the Book of Genesis where, as punishment, God tells Adam that he shall spend his days toiling in the field while Eve shall be burdened with the labors of childbirth. My (very) speculative thesis is that this idea of work as toil coincides with the birth of agriculture 10,000 years and so ago. It is not for nothing that aristocrats in many early heroic societies tended to distinguish between leisure and warfare (their noble pursuits) and animal husbandry, farming, artisanship, and slavery (the plebs’ various fates).

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The only 3 ways of making a living: Reflections on sustaining life

Yesterday, I had a breakthrough in how I think about economic relationships when these are understood in the most basic terms possible. The occasion for my thinking about this question is my upcoming fall course, ‘The Good Life and Sustaining Life,’ at Kaos Pilots. There are three principal questions that make up the course I’ll be teaching:

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