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Re-reading Garrett Hardin in light of Wendell Berry

My dad recently reminded me of Garrett Hardin's essay "The tragedy of the commons", which I've read five times or more in school at various times.  Re-reading it now, it struck me how central the idea of responsibility is to that essay.

The central problem for Hardin, of course, is that people acting in their own self-interest will overuse things that are held in common.  When common goods are in limited supply and precious to us, we are all harmed by laissez-faire.  The reason free agents often pollute our water and despoil our public land is that they reap the
benefits of its use, but avoid responsibility for its destruction.  It's the exact opposite of the invisible hand of the market making everyone better off.

For Hardin, the problem of the tragedy of the commons is how we can
make ourselves take responsibility for the damage we do.  Hardin thinks there are several solutions to this problem.  Often
people I talk with misunderstand "The tragedy of the commons" to be an
argument for privatization, pure and simple.  But privatization
is only useful for Hardin to the extent that it can internalize
negative externalities, to use some commonplace economic jargon.  Reading the essay again, it's clear that he doesn't think privatization is any sort of panacea -- it can be unjust and it's often not effective.

Hardin's essay is mostly an argument for strong regulation --
what he calls "mutual coercion." This can take the form of prohibition (thou shalt not rob banks, and you will be imprisoned if you do), or of taxation (if you want to park downtown you have to feed the meter or pay large parking fines).  Since Hardin thought overpopulation was despoiling the natural commons, his essay is an argument for the regulation of reproduction: "[t]he only way we can preserve and nurture other and more precious freedoms is by relinquishing the freedom to breed. . . ."  Trying to persuade people to take responsibility was a losing proposition for Hardin.

All of this is interesting to me because a) I'm thinking a lot about the kind of agrarianism sketched out by Wendell Berry, and tend to think that it's pretty much the way to go, and because b) agrarianism of this kind is distinguished by the importance that it places on the idea of responsibility.  Why does Berry argue for localism as against globalism?  Because he thinks that when the scale of our activities becomes too large, we cannot even be aware of the effects of what we choose to do.  Therefore, we cannot possibly take responsibility for them.

The tragedy of the commons, in fact, would seem less likely when the commons in question is on a small scale.  When a common pasture is small, the rancher turning loose his extra sheep is confronted in the face with the destruction those excess animals cause.  A small park is where it's most likely that the woman who lets her doggie run free every morning is more likely to notice that her dog is leaving piles of greasy shit all over the grass, making her more likely to internalize that negative externality by cleaning up after Fido.

"The tragedy of the commons" is a scary essay.  Everything Hardin says seems to make sense, but it leads to a conclusion that's hard to accept -- few of us would welcome a forced restriction on our ability to "breed."  Thinking about Berry's arguments for limiting the scale of our activities might allow us take the best parts from Hardin's essay while rejecting the dystopian, bureaucratic, scary-as-hell vision of comrades searching our homes for illegal babies.

Anyway, these are things that I'll have time to think about more later.  I'm working a ton of shifts in the peds ER this month, and tomorrow at 7am I've got to go back to work.  Comments are, as always, appreciated.




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