The Anti-Democratic Origins Of Capitalism: The Tragedy Of The Commons II

Read part I here.

In his famous article, “Tragedy Of The Commons”, Professor  Garrett Hardin said Adam Smith’s economic “invisible hand” — letting economic actors play  without interference — led to a “dominant tendency of thought” that warps rational thinking. Perhaps. The “invisible hand” he says, has led to:

the tendency to assume that decisions reached individually will, in fact, be the best decisions for an entire society. If this assumption is correct it justifies the continuance of our present policy of laissez-faire in reproduction. If it is correct we can assume that men will control their individual fecundity so as to produce the optimum population. If the assumption is not correct, we need to reexamine our individual freedoms to see which ones are defensible.

It must be said that the “invisible hand” has never existed. Ruling class backing has never hurt the successful. Still, Hardin takes the “invisible hand” out of its capitalist context. He uses it to blame population growth on the individual — it is always the hapless individual. The ruling class is left completely out of the picture, as if We did not exist. Left out are the policies by powerful actors who impose their hegemony on a mostly ignorant masses. There is a feedback loop in which the masses respond with their own bad decisions — given their often desperate circumstances — and which mostly, if We are successful, benefit Our superficial ruling class interests.

We mostly oppose abortion, not on moral grounds, but political. Morals are for the masses. Abortion is a good divide and conquer token issue. It also serves to prevent population decrease, thereby producing more workers, allowing Us to lower wages and standards.

Many ruling classes also use immigration to swell competition, and sew division among the masses. This was especially true of the U.S. in the early twentieth century. Look at Europe today. The influx of decidedly non-Europeans into Europe is no accident.

From concocted wars that create millions of refugees to the very lucrative human trafficking “industry”, one can not say that the problem of population growth is wholly dependent on “men” “rationally” controlling their own fecundity. In this way, We simultaneously divert the focus off of Us, while at the same time blame the masses, allowing Us an excuse to deprive them in some way . One sees throughout this essay a practical example of the need for a guilt society. As Hardin advises us, “We need to reexamine our individual freedoms to see which ones are defensible.”

In a ruling class-less society, where untainted rationality might have a chance, can one possibly rely on the individual to make rational decisions. But poverty does not always favor rationality, nor, for that matter, does being part of the one percenters. The middle class are too often economically squeezed for the luxury rationality as well. We like to think of Ourselves in the Preservation Society as the exception. We are the rational standard, praise the Supreme Executive.


The Commons, as understood by Hardin, are the resources shared by all. These include the air, water, space, and throws in the ability to breed among the lower orders. Various forms of commons have existed in most parts of the world. The socialist Monthly Review’s Ian Angus  points out many rural areas in England maintained commons well into the 18th century.

Moreover, it is difficult to justify ownership and privatization over the commons because no one “produced it” and because all are seemingly equally welcome to this bounty. How is one to establish dominance and control in such circumstances? Does the individual see how this goes against the ruling class zeitgeist? Today we say no one is responsible for the commons upkeep and this inevitably leads to disaster. Therefore they must be owned. And in a ruling class world to whom would ownership inevitably fall? Indeed to whom is it realistically permitted to own?

Angus summarizes Hardin’s “thought experiment”:

“Picture a pasture open to all,” Hardin wrote.  A herdsmen who wants to expand his personal herd will calculate that the cost of additional grazing (reduced food for all animals, rapid soil depletion) will be divided among all, but he alone will get the benefit of having more cattle to sell.

Inevitably, “the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd.”  But every “rational herdsman” will do the same thing, so the commons is soon overstocked and overgrazed to the point where it supports no animals at all.

This has become a milestone in the annals of economic and financial “thought”. Right off the bat one see how obtuse Hardin’s herdsmen are. They don’t think or get together to coordinate. They are selfish and greedy, just as the guilt society requires.

But the reality was quite different. Professor Susan Cox wrote:

[W]hat existed in fact was not a “tragedy of the commons” but rather a triumph: that for hundreds of years — and perhaps thousands, although written records do not exist to prove the longer era — land was managed successfully by communities.

She also points out that not just anybody was allowed access to the commons. Those who had rights to the commons were often part of its ownership scheme. The rise of the commons was also a response to abuse of the commons.

One of the methods of controlling grazing was “stinting,” allocating the number and type of beast that could be grazed on the waste. Stinting developed more from lack of winter feed when stock was pastured on the arable land than from a desire to protect the summer grazing. This summer grazing “was as carefully controlled as the manorial courts could make it.” The quality of the waste and its size, which could vary from fifty to over three hundred acres, dictated in great part the size of the stints, although in some places other solutions to overgrazing were found. . . Hence, we have one abuse of the common: simple lawbreaking which was remedied by resort to the law.

The problems of the commons was that it did not conform to the new ideology of profit and private property. In fact the down fall of the commons can be attributed to the very forces Hardin and other apologists promote as its savior.

A similar problem with a less happy solution occurred when the wealthier landholders took advantage of the poorer tenants. In the early sixteenth century, Fitzherbert noted that the rich man benefited from overcharging the common. According to Gonner, it was “pointed out alike in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that the poor owning rights may be largely kept out of their rights by the action of large farmers who exceed their rights and thus surcharge the common to the detriment of all, or by the lack of winter feed in the absence of which summer grazing could be of little worth . . . There was little redress: “These abuses used formerly to be strictly observed at the Court Baron, but of late years [ca. 1727] have been little regarded, except in some manors where the steward would present them that offended, and the more when he found the substantial tenants had agreed together not to present one another, and to crush their poorer tenants that should offer to do it.” The unfortunate poor tenant was denied his remedy at law for the illegal abuses of the more powerful landowners.

One could see which way the wind was blowing, the Great Spirit of the Ruling Class did. Facts notwithstanding, the answer to the “Tragedy” of the commons, we are told, is to put the resource in question into private hands, preferably Ours.

Here is sociologist G.N. Appell:

Unfortunately, Hardin’s argument is sociologically naive. He ignores the emergent and self-regulating nature of social organizations in response to such challenges, as in the example of stinting (also see McCay and Acheson, eds. 1987; National Resource Council 1986; Berkes 1989). Furthermore, his argument is historically uninformed. Commons of pasturage, as well as other commons, are in fact a form of private property (see Hoskins 1963:4; Dahlman 1980:23). And use of the pasturage, it has been claimed, was limited to each individual by the size of his arable holdings (Lord Ernie 1968:297, quoted in Dahlman 1980:23).

Ignoring reality, Hardin confuses his free market fairy tale with the free market imperatives:

Even at this late date, cattlemen leasing national land on the western ranges demonstrate no more than an ambivalent understanding, in constantly pressuring federal authorities to increase the head count to the point where overgrazing produces erosion and weed-dominance. Likewise, the oceans of the world continue to suffer from the survival of the philosophy of the commons. Maritime nations still respond automatically to the shibboleth of the “freedom of the seas.” Professing to believe in the “inexhaustible resources of the oceans,” they bring species after species of fish and whales closer to extinction.

Those are are powerful private interests who don’t want to be accountable, that are pushing the commons to exhaustion. It is big private interests pushing the clear cutting of forests, it is private interests that want to dump without suffering the “externalities“, it is private interests who want to pollute freely with no “commons” authority to protect the commons. Who, except Liberals and Conservatives, doesn’t know that “private property” releases the individual from social obligations and responsibility?

Is it not understandable why the commons had to be rejected, even vilified? The commons and its ways of thinking were not convenient to the lords and rich peasants who had capitalist wealth on their agenda. Self-regulation among the masses is anathema to any ruling class society. As Dr. Appelled points out, many forms of commons were forms of private property. But the rising spirit of the Supreme Executive could not tolerate even an inkling of common ownership, because it makes mince meat of free-market ideology, i.e., the private property regime. You can chalk up “Tragedy” as a casualty. We remind the reader, that we are ardent capitalists.

The real tragedy is that today much justification for privatization stems from this farce of a paper and harms the stability of society. Leave it to the socialists not to mince words. Ian Angus:

The truly appalling thing about “The Tragedy of the Commons” is not its lack of evidence or logic — badly researched and argued articles are not unknown in academic journals. What’s shocking is the fact that this piece of reactionary nonsense has been hailed as a brilliant analysis of the causes of human suffering and environmental destruction, and adopted as a basis for social policy by supposed experts ranging from economists and environmentalists to governments and United Nations agencies.

This is what Magazine had to say about it in A Short History of Land Enclosure in Britain:

How it came to be published in a serious academic journal is a mystery, since its central thesis, in the author’s own words, is what “some would say is a platitude”, while most of the paper consists of the sort of socio-babble that today can be found on the average blog. The conclusion, that “the alternative of the commons is too horrifying to contemplate,” is about as far removed from a sober scientific judgment as one could imagine.

[Interesting among these socialists: conflict between bad academic articles as unsurprising, and how a serious journal came to publish such rubbish]

Indeed, the buffoonery of shoddy “scholarship” will not stop Our minions from pursuing an agenda that are destructive even to Our interests.

Investopedia defines “tragedy of the commons” as “an economic problem in which every individual tries to reap the greatest benefit from a given resource … the tragedy of the commons occurs when individuals neglect the well-being of society in the pursuit of personal gain.” How is that for twisted profit logic? Accurately speaking, the commons are about coordination, cooperation and self-regulation of the lower orders who are protected by commons law. Enclosure effectively negated those rights and protections. Enclosure was about the transformation of the commons from common property of its inhabitants into private property of the lord, which meant kicking peasants off their lands without recompense, and depriving them of their age old common rights. Not a very democratic start to the capitalist age.

The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics take this widely discredited ideological appendage seriously as well.

Law professor Jonathan H. Adler of Case Western Reserve University School of Law demonstrates his learning while being partially correct:

Hardin’s essay is tremendously important, not so much because he discovered the commons problem — others had documented this dynamic before — but because he popularized a useful way of thinking about many environmental problems.

It seems that Professor Adler and many of his colleagues still don’t know about the age-old understanding of the commons. He ponders the question of how to deal with the them, though of course it has been answered many, many times.

Adler wrestles with these conundrums:

As Hardin explained it, the pursuit of self-interest in an open-access commons leads to ruin. Without controls on access and use of the underlying resource, the tragedy of the commons is inevitable.

Whatever shall we do? We have already seen Hardin’s solution, privatize the commons. For example, in the case of parks:

We have several options. We might sell them off as private property. We might keep them as public property, but allocate the right to enter them. The allocation might be on the basis of wealth, by the use of an auction system. It might be on the basis of merit, as defined by some agreed-upon standards. It might be by lottery. Or it might be on a first-come, first-served basis, administered to long queues. These, I think, are all the reasonable possibilities. They are all objectionable. But we must choose–or acquiesce in the destruction of the commons that we call our National Parks.

Hand the commons over to those private interests that Hardin blames for exhausting the commons in the first place. The Preservation Society oppose public property, but it had to be said. It helps the medicine go down. Either way, Hardin’s, Adler’s, et al. solutions are wealth oriented to naturally favor the ruling class. “Centralized” ownership, meaning public ownership accountable to the people, is off the table, whereas centralized power in the hands of unaccountable big business is is pushed as the only remaining solution.

“Administrative regulations have produced some gains,” says Adler, “but also many failings. Our air and water are cleaner today than forty years ago — and substantially so — but many ecological resources are as threatened now as they ever were.” Is the jury still out on these questions? Is it the commons or the private interest ruling class that is wreaking havoc everywhere? Is it a system in place that incentivizes waste and destruction as efficient that threatens ecological resources?

Adler correctly states that “[n]o interest group has adequate incentive to put the interests of the whole ahead of the interests of the few.” Unfortunately, he omits “… in a ruling class society”. That is of course how We like it.

Hardin quotes a “philosopher”, “Responsibility is the product of definite social arrangements.” But he nor his free market brethren seem to realize that “definite social arrangements” compel business to abuse the “commons”.

Then we get to the heart of Adler’s agenda: “The logic of collective action discourages investments in sound public policy just as it discourages investments in sound ecological stewardship.”

Pursuing the identification and expansion of property rights in ecological resources will be difficult, but the potential benefits are large. We understand the importance of property rights for economic prosperity, but we are also beginning to understand the importance of property rights for ecological sustainability.

History notwithstanding of course. With all the horrid examples of unaccountable capitalist crimes in the name of property, you’d think Professor Adler might offer up an example of the commons. Indeed, none of these free marketeers offer up examples of how the commons failed, except to point at the abuse of the commons by private interests and their lobbyists. According to this profit logic, the masses must be severely restricted in their access to things, while the ruling class can be as gluttonous as possible.

Regulation has always been the way society maintained itself and preserved its commons. The commons in many cases were a response to abuse to the unregulated access to land. Unfortunately for Us, effective commons management and regulation slows down profit-making and challenges centralized authority.

The higher order capitalist tells their lower orders that cooperation and regulation are not the answer despite a history of success and longevity. Protect the commons from for-profit predation? Too logical and and easy to grasp! Joke: How long does it take a capitalist ideologue to understand the obvious about their religion before it crumbles? We are still waiting…

In the next post, We look at the specific Enclosure movement in the 17th century.

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