Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Tragedy of the Hardin

Odds are, you've heard of the "tragedy of the commons." (If not: Let Google be your guide.) The (contemporary) source of the idea is an article written by ecologist Garret Hardin some time ago, laying out the seemingly logical proposition that (at base) -- people in a community will inevitably abuse a shared resource in order to try and maximize their personal use of it, such that the shared resource will eventually run out or be otherwise denuded.

Although in my own research, I've certainly read of cases where that did happen, it certainly is far from true that that always happens, or that the only ways to prevent it are: a) government coercion/restricted access, or b) complete privatization. He argues that one cannot rely on conscience or cooperation to regulate the wise use of a commons, as selfish people will inevitably exploit it.

We all know cases where such exploitation does happen, again, but it certainly isn't an "inevitable consequence" as Hardin implies. (A mentor of mine has re-phrased Hardin's proposition as "The tragedy of the privately owned sheep" -- based on the case Hardin used as an example, that of English peasants herding sheep with a commons providing forage for the sheep. Of course, if the sheep were raised in common for the village, it would again not be in their interest to denude the commons, theoretically bringing the system back in balance -- and certainly, it's easier to tell who is eating extra sheep and thus "conscience" and social pressure seem more likely to rule in that case. But I digress.)

Although the argument has grown considerably more complicated since Hardin (and I suspect before as well -- he was hardly the first to think of this), the raison d'etre of this blog post is this article here, pointing out that as written, Hardin's piece offered no actual proof, real-life context, or other essential elements of scientific reasoning, yet it has been hugely influential and widely quoted. The author implies that this is because it could be used to justify pre-existing prejudices, which it certainly did so for Hardin, who himself was something of a eugenicist and rather worried about the population growth of the poor masses (rather than the population growth of the huge, resource-chomping-like-it's-candy wealthy few). Anyway. Read. Tchau.


Daktari said...

The tragedy of the privately owned sheep! Ha! I like it. I swear, this article is going on my to read list, too.

Damn you, Internet Boyfriend! Damn you. My reading list is too long already!


On a brighter note, no one called me a fat, nigger loving whore all day yesterday. (You have to find happiness in the little things.)

J said...

Glad to hear it!

I'd recommend reading the article soonish -- it's a really quick read, and it's always satisfying to cross things off of one's list!

Daktari said...

From Angus' article,

"Hardin assumed that human nature is selfish and unchanging and that society is just an assemblage of self-interested individuals who don't care about the impact of their actions on the community. The same idea, explicitly or implicitly, is a fundamental component of mainstream (i.e., pro-capitalist) economic theory."

It occurs to me that most selfishness (outside the realm of childhood) is done in secret. In fact, social pressure is so strong that I maintain selfishness can only succeed long-term in the dark. The community will celebrate a successful man. The community will castigate the man whose success arises by taking from others. Only when the latter man can operate in secrecy (hiding his sins in foreign countries, for example) is he able to maintain his standing in the community. But his success, and his standing are both built on lies.

J said...

Dammit, I'm supposed to be headed to work now! But, yes: good points.

After all, if pro-capitalistic economic theory were true on its face, companies wouldn't have to hide their wrong-doing and the terrible conditions (say) of their workers, in the US or abroad.

It's true we're often complicit in hiding these unpleasant truths from ourselves, but the capitalists themselves do a mighty job of helping out in the this. It's not as if we're hiding evidence smacking us in the face (at least, not all the time) -- China is quite far away, and meatpacking plants don't allow much in the way of reporting or recording on the inside (and not just cuz it can look gross).

No, we're complicit alright, but if we were Hardinistically selfish, why would we care and why would so much effort go into hiding it and reassuring us that hard work allows everyone opportunity? Fuck "everyone", right?