October 23, 2017

Managing the commons

Review of Managing The Commons by Garrett Hardin and John Baden (Ed), W.H. Freeman & Co.

From The Ecologist Quarterly, Spring 1978


This is a collection of 26 papers that examine different aspects and applications of the Tragedy of the Commons—Garrett Hardin’s now famous allegory.

In addition to the reprinted “Tragedy of the Commons” seven of the articles are by Hardin, and six by co-editor John Baden (one in collaboration with Karl Bullock, another with Richard Stroup), while William Forster Lloyd (1833), H.V. Muhsam, Jay M. Anderson (of the Limits to Growth team), Beryl Crowe, Daniel Fife, Colin W. Clark, James A. Wilson, Gordon Tullock, Vincent and Elinor Ostram, Elinor Ostram (by herself), Terry Anderson and P.J. Hill, Robert Bish, and last but not least Kenneth Boulding, are responsible for the others.

The Tragedy of the Commons, as we all know, is its desertification as a result of overgrazing. This occurs because it is in the personal short-term interest of each individual herdsman to get what he can out of the commons, though needless to say, not in the long-term interests of the group to which he belongs.

The allegory is of course a particularly useful one in that the present systematic destruction of the global environment is occurring precisely because it is being treated as one vast commons which people are exploiting as much as they can so as to further their personal short-term interests. How can one counteract this trend? How in fact can one prevent the Tragedy of the Commons?

Hardin answers this in “An Operational Analysis of Responsibility” (Chapter 9).

The problem is a social one. The herdsmen somehow must be persuaded to subordinate their personal short-term interests to the long-term ones of the group. It means in fact that they must develop a sense of responsibility. It is in these terms that Hardin sees the problem. “The Herdsmen” he writes “have the right to pasture their cattle in the Commons but this right is unmatched by any corresponding responsibility.”

The only viable system, he feels, is one in which people have obligations as well as rights, in which, in fact, rights are not automatic but conditional on, or rewards for, the fulfilment of these obligations. Hardin considers that such conditions are best satisfied under a system of private ownership, i.e. by fencing in the Commons. Each herdsman will then have to pay the cost of overgrazing, for it would mean turning his own land into a desert.

Unfortunately this is not always possible. Firstly if there is over-population, there are likely to be a lot of people without access to land, the more so, the less stable the system is likely to be. Also it is not always possible to fence in the commons. Fences for instance are no protection against pollution, which can travel a long way from where it was originally released. If we cannot fence it in, then undoubtedly stricter laws must be set up to prevent its destruction. Voluntary agreements, Hardin insists are not sufficient since people will be rewarded for breaking them. “We get the behaviour we reward for” Hardin observes, and coercion, however unfashionable the concept may be, is nevertheless absolutely necessary in these conditions.

What alternatives are there to the solution proposed by Garrett Hardin? As he notes himself, socialism is one. However a large socialist state is not run by the people themselves but by distant state bureaucrats. When a bureaucrat makes a wrong decision he may suffer in so far as he is a member of the public that has been adversely affected by this decision, but:

“his share of the loss resulting from a bad decision is very small—so small that we can safely call it zero—contrasting with that of the decision maker (owner) under private enterprise.”

Even if there are other constraints on his behaviour, social and legal ones for instance, Hardin considers, there is little reason to suppose that he will serve the public interest particularly well. Also if he makes a bad decision, he will be tempted to falsify the information system, as the private enterpriser is not, and happens to be in a particularly strong position to do so.

Hardin admits however that ‘in a very small socialistic group, all the decisions could be made in a ‘town meeting’ and that ‘in this case socialism would not differ essentially from the private enter-prise. The trouble is that societies tend to grow’ and as they do so the development of a bureaucracy is inevitable.

My only disagreement with Hardin is that this has only been true during a very short proportion of the human experience. Seen in terms of man’s total experience, such small societies were perfectly viable and have in fact proved to be the most durable. Also, in such small societies, people’s short-term interests were effectively subordinated to the long-term interests of the group as a whole. This is simply a way of saying that such societies displayed ‘order’ (defined as the influence of the whole over the parts) as do all other natural systems (ecosystems, biological organisms and non-human animal societies).

In a tribal society (the type that displays the highest degree of order) the Tragedy of the Commons would not normally occur. It would only be likely to do so if its behaviour were altered by external pressures if it were encouraged to make us of modern destructive technologies for instance, or if it were moved to another area to which its behaviour pattern was not adaptive.

Crowe, in The Tragedy of the Commons Revisited (Chapter 8) agrees that our modern atomised society cannot prevent the Tragedy of the Commons. “The operational requirements of modern institutions make incremental rationality the only viable form of decision making”, he writes, “but this only raises the prior question as to whether there are solutions to any major problems raised in modern society.” Crowe also considers the possibility that the tribal society may be best capable of solving these problems. “It may well be” he writes,

“that the emerging forms of tribal behaviour noted in this article are the last hope of reducing political and social institutions to a level where incommensurables become commensurable in terms of values and in terms of comprehensive responses to problems. After all, in the history of man on earth we might well assume that the departure from the tribal experience is a short-term deviant experiment that failed.” (p.62)

At this point we might ask ourselves how is order maintained in a tribal society and hence how is the Tragedy of the Commons averted?

The answer is, as in the case of any other natural system. A social system builds a model of its relationship with its environment in the light of which its responses are mediated and monitored. In the case of a society, this model is provided by its religio-culture (religion and culture being inseparable in a tribal society).

That religio-culture may be critical in assuring the subordination of petty short-term interests to those of society as a whole, is hinted at by Kenneth Boulding in his very interesting paper (Commons and Community, the Idea of a Public (Chapter 26). “Religion in some form” he writes,

seems to be universal in human culture which makes one suspect that it is of great importance in the development of viable communities. Sacred sanctions that overcome the more self-centred images of individual interests might prevent the Tragedy of the Commons because of the community identity which the perception of sacredness creates in the individual.”

This notion of sacredness is indeed an essential one and it is interesting that an economist should realise it, but then Kenneth Boulding is no ordinary economist. He goes on to note that,

within the framework of community either the Commons can be privatized without the threat of disruption from those who are excluded from the property, or coercion (threat systems) in the administration of the public life can be legitimized through taxes and regulations.”

This ‘communal privatization’ is an alternative solution which Hardin hasn’t sufficiently considered as a means of preventing the Tragedy of the Commons, yet it is the one adopted by man for well over 90 per cent of his tenancy of this planet, during which time the Tragedy of the Commons was largely averted.

A further point, the necessary coercion in an orderly social system such as the tribe is generally exerted by a powerful public opinion fed by local gossip and reflecting the traditional values. This, it is easy to demonstrate, has been the most effective form of social-control. Coercion by an external agent only appears necessary in an atomised society such as ours which displays no real order, i.e. in which the influence of the whole over the parts can only be assured, very precariously at that, by forces external to the social system (asystemic).

Having said this, Managing the Commons deals with a key subject. It makes very stimulating reading, and like all Garrett Hardin’s books, deserves the widest possible readership.

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