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An Illusory Intertwingling of Reason and Response

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Tafel :: philosophy :: political

Saturday, August 18, 2007

On the Tragedy of the Commons and Freedom to Choose

In or about the year of our Lord One thousand six hundred thirty and four the then present inhabitants of the Town of Boston . . . did treat and agree . . . for the purchase of . . . any Lands living within said neck of Land called Boston after which purchase the Town laid out a plan for a trayning field for which ever since and now is used for that purpose and for the feeding of cattell.

So states a bronze plaque positioned at the edge of the fifty acres known as Boston Common.

Boston Common was an experiment, and as far as anyone knew, it should have worked. Boston's population was yet small, the cattleholders devout, civic-minded men, and the utility of a common grazing-land evident. And yet, somehow the Common shortly became overrun, muddy, and grassless — overgrazed 1. The truth of the matter is that the experiment had no chance of success, insofar as man is both selfish and rational, and will seek his own self-interest above all else. (That self-interest may, on an individual basis, include many seemingly-altruistic components is a topic for another time.)

Given two farmers and a common piece of land, each will graze as many cattle as he can. If he decides to let the land rest, so as to not overgraze it, his compatriot will simply graze the land further, annulling the positive impact of any attempt at restraint. When users of the land are added, the problem worsens. The land is doomed from the start, and any individual has no incentive refrain from "getting his" as quickly as possible: if he shows self-restraint, gains nothing but loss for himself, leaving for his neighbor what he could have taken.

And so, in timeless example that communal property is never valued as highly as individual property, the Boston Common wasted: eventually it became the last-choice and poorest-quality grazing to be had. Whatever grass sprang up was quickly devoured by those few cattle it did support, and as quickly the Common became of no use to anyone. Two hundred years later, grazing was forbidden in final acknowledgment of the failure of the Common.

Unfortunately, while we share a planet, a state, a street, a waterway, commons are with us, and must be managed. I say unfortunately because, where no communal property exists, violation of the rights of others is much simpler to avoid. However, we have myriad governmental regulatory agencies that even I, as an avowed libertarian, must admit are, at least in concept, necessary: necessary due to the fact that certain common resources must be managed.

This need for management is, of course, proportional to population. The Boston Common would probably have been a rousing success for the first fifty or hundred years of its existence if, instead of being fifty acres, it had been fifteen thousand acres. The entire complement of cattle from the Town of Boston could have grazed there continuously with no overgrazing: the Common would have been in excess of the physically-possible demand.

This state would be comparable to the first days of radio communication. Early on, few people possessed radio receivers, and fewer transmitters. The airwaves (more precisely, radio-frequency bandwidth) — of necessity a commons — were available far in excess than the possible demand.

However, as mass communication grew in importance, with it grew demand for its medium. Without regulation, no one would have seen incentive to refrain from increasing transmission power and number of frequencies transmitted above that of his neighbours. The equal rights of individuals to transmit electromagnetic signals for communication purposes would have been lost in a blind fight for power and bandwidth. Indeed, a well-heeled investor could have his message broadcast on all stations receivable by consumer radios, with strength enough to smother any competing transmission. Freedom would have been lost, not gained, by a lack of regulation.

This is where regulation finds its valid use: while it is abominable to me that a government agency can, for my ostensible protection, regulate what substances (whether they be prescription drugs or foodstuffs) I can put into my body, it is equally abominable that the free market in ideas could be maliciously disrupted with no consequence by a popular broadcaster. Regulation serves the market when, rather than manipulating the market in turn, it preserves the freedom of the market from untoward manipulation.

An example would be regulation on predatory pricing: the "commons" in this scenario is the market for a good itself. A manipulation of the "meta-market" would result from a producer who knew he could outlast his competitors selling a good at a loss. Lack of competition in would then allow the final producer to take advantage of the no-longer-free market he had created.

Even — and it is a strain to say this, because most regulation on this front has been excessive and biased in the extreme — environmental and pollution regulation have their place. In the Classical Liberal (modern-day libertarian2) ideal, I have a right to act in any way I please, so long as those actions do not infringe upon the equal rights of other citizens. Polluting a common waterway in such a way as to make the water unsuitable for common uses is clearly a violation of this ideal. However, sans regulation, no incentive to refrain exists.

However, not all commons exist in se: governments have a long (and some might say inglorious) history in the creation of commons. We now might mention one of the talking points of Garrett Hardin's classic Science essay, "The Tragedy of the Commons": that creation of a commons by a government of necessity creates a right and obligation of that government to regulate it. This cause and effect is one more item that must be considered in granting a government an additional power: does it create a commons, and are we prepared to grant the government the necessary regulatory powers?

The heading of Hardin's essay which attracted the most ardent of criticism is "Freedom to Breed is Intolerable".

Of course, most readers would disagree with Hardin's allegation, as would I. However, his logic is a result of a single choice in governmental policy: welfare. Hardin grants that the government has the power to provide for all individuals under its auspices at some basal level. He then supports the moderate, liberal, and social-democratic idea that such capability produces an obligation in the form of social welfare. However, he also acknowledges what most moderates, liberals, and social democrats of our day do not: welfare creates a commons.

If each human family were dependent only on its own resources; if the children of improvident parents starved to death; if, thus, overbreeding brought its own "punishment" to the germ line — then there would be no public interest in controlling the breeding of families. But our society is deeply committed to the welfare state, and hence is confronted with another aspect of the tragedy of the commons.

Government handouts have become a commons. All one need do to have access to these handouts is be unable or unwilling to provide like benefits for oneself. There logically follow two options: on the one side, that freedom to breed is not a necessary right, and on the other, that subsistence is not a necessary right. Hardin rightly places these, not as two necessities (as most, especially those of collectivistic leanings, would), but as opposite and contradictory extremes, the Tragedy of the Commons being the only possible outcome of the two practiced simultaneously.

Hardin, as would be expected, accepts society's demand for a social welfare system, and offers it in return the only sustainable answer. If subsistence is a commons, then the only way to ensure it remains available — to ensure that greater demand than is permanently satisfiable never occurs — is to regulate how many individuals may call upon it.

To couple the concept of freedom to breed with the belief that everyone born has an equal right to the commons is to lock the world into a tragic course of action.

So he repudiates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, where it states:

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights describes the family as the natural and fundamental unit of society. It follows that any choice and decision with regard to the size of the family must irrevocably rest with the family itself, and cannot be made by anyone else.

Refusing to admit that subsistence is a mistakenly-opened commons, Hardin chooses rather to grant to the state authority over reproduction, that most personal of choices.

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