The Theft of the Commons

Eula Biss at The New Yorker: “…The idea that shared resources are inevitably ruined by people who exploit them is sometimes called the tragedy of the commons. This is not just an attitude that passes for common sense but an economic theory: “The Tragedy of the Commons” was the title of a 1968 essay by the ecologist Garrett Hardin. His essay has been cited so often that it has kept the word commons in use among people who know nothing about the commons. “The tragedy of the commons develops in this way,” Hardin wrote. “Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.”

Hardin was a white nationalist who subscribed to what is now called “replacement theory.” He believed that the United States needed to restrict nonwhite immigration, because, as he put it, “a multiethnic society is insanity.” In 1974, he published an essay titled “Lifeboat Ethics: The Case Against Helping the Poor,” in which he warned of the dangers of creating a world food bank: “The less provident and less able will multiply at the expense of the abler and more provident,” he wrote, “bringing eventual ruin upon all who share in the commons.”

Hardin was writing long after the commons had been lost to enclosure, and his commons was purely hypothetical. Actual, historical commons weren’t the free-for-all he imagined. In Laxton, villagers who held rights to Westwood Common could keep twenty sheep there, or the equivalent in cows. No one was allowed to keep more animals on the commons in summer than they could support in winter. Common rights were continuously revisited and revised in the course of centuries, as demand rose and fell. In 1662, the court fined a Laxton man “for not felling his part of thistles in the Town Moor.” As E. P. Thompson observed, “Commoners themselves were not without commonsense.”…(More)”.