Tragedy of the commons

The concept of the tragedy of the commons, first proposed by Garrett Hardin, is a cliche these days. Like most of the world, I understand Hardin’s basic argument but have never read the essay. But awhile back I did bookmark an article called “The Myth of the Tragedy of the Commons.”  It struck me as a pretty good critique of Hardin’s essay (that I never read!), both factually–turns out that actual commons never really experience the tragedy that Hardin describes–and also as being based on some questionable assumptions, in particular that economically man will always try to maximize his wealth and behave selfishly in doing so.
The critic is a socialist, and I thought this was a good observation: “In short, Hardin didn’t describe the behavior of herdsmen in pre-capitalist farming communities — he described the behavior of capitalists operating in a capitalist economy.  The universal human nature that he claimed would always destroy common resources is actually the profit-driven “grow or die” behavior of corporations.” Unfortunately, the critic betrays his own assumptions in pinning the blame on corporations. There are plenty of historical examples of how individuals selfishly pursued their own material gain–say, the late medieval landowners who pushed the peasants of the land through enclosure.

If I had to make a distinction, I’d say that some cultures or communities are guided by a sense of whoever dies with the most toys wins, while others have a sense of enough. The latter are so scarce these days that it’s natural to assume that selfish gain is a basic human instinct, but in my reading about the history of labor I’ve found that it’s only recently that this was important to the average person. During the early stages of the industrial revolution it gave capitalists fits that people couldn’t be reliably motivated by money; once they had earned enough to cover their basic needs, they preferred the freedom of not working to the additional wages that came by working extra hours.

For those products where piecework was the rule (i.e. laborer paid by the item produced), it turned out that raising the per-piece rate actually decreased the amount people were willing to work. In his book Shopcraft as Soul Craft Matthew Crawford mentions that in the early days Henry Ford had to hire one thousand workers in order to keep one hundred, the other nine hundred preferring to quit than to work at the job. It took a wage that was historically astronomical to inflame people’s greed sufficiently to make them want the work (and things like consumer credit to make them anxious to keep the job).

Then again, there are examples of the selfishness Hardin describes that don’t involve capitalism, just not the one he picks. I remember when Chris was reading Jared Diamond’s book Collapse, and he told me about how Easter Island society collapsed in large part because people were selfish about cutting wood and ended up completely deforesting the island. He said, “I wonder what the guy was thinking as he cut down that last tree?” I told him he was probably thinking he was glad he got there before that other guy coming up behind him.


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