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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