It turns out that the concept of the Tragedy of the Commons, taught as a basic assumption in most economics classes, is bullshit.
In a brilliant Twitter thread, UCSB political scientist Matto Mildenberger recounts the sordid history of Garrett Hardin’s classic, widely cited 1968 article “The Tragedy of the Commons,” whose ideas are taught to millions of undergrads, and whose precepts are used to justify the privatization of public goods as the only efficient way to manage them.
Hardin’s paper starts with a history of the English Commons — publicly held lands that were collectively owned and managed — and the claim that commons routinely fell prey to the selfish human impulse to overgraze your livestock on public land (and that even non-selfish people would overgraze their animals because they knew that their more-selfish neighbors would do so even if they didn’t).
But this isn’t what actually happened to the Commons: they were stable and well-managed until other factors (e.g. rich people trying to acquire even more land) destabilized them.
Hardin wasn’t just inventing false histories out of a vacuum. He was, personally, a nasty piece of work: a white supremacist and eugenicist, and the Tragedy of the Commons paper is shot through with this vile ideology, arguing that poor people should not be given charity lest they breed beyond their means (Hardin also campaigned against food aid). Hardin was a director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform and the white nationalist Social Contract Press, and co-founded anti-immigrant groups like Californians for Population Stabilization and The Environmental Fund.
Mildenberger argues that Hardin was a trumpist before Trump: He served on the board of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), whose talking points often emerge from Trump’s mouth.
(Hardin quotes that didn’t make it into his seminal paper: “Diversity is the opposite of unity, and unity is a prime requirement for national survival” and “My position is that this idea of a multiethnic society is a disaster…we should restrict immigration for that reason.”)
As Mildenberger points out, this isn’t a case where a terrible person had some great ideas that outlived them: Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons was a piece of intellectual fraud committed in service to his racist, eugenicist ideology.
What’s worse: the environmental movement elevates Hardin to sainthood, whitewashing his racism and celebrating “The Tragedy of the Commons” as a seminal work of environmental literature. But Hardin is no friend of the environment: his noxious cocktail of racism and false history are used to move public lands into private ownership or stewardship, (literally) paving the way for devastating exploitation of those lands.
By contrast, consider Nobelist Elinor Ostrom’s Governing the Commons, whose groundbreaking insights on the management of common resources are a prescription for a better, more prosperous, more egalitarian future.
Update: If this kind of thing interests you, check out Tim Harford’s (previously) 2013 column on Hardin and Ostrom’s brilliant response to him.
Hardin wasn’t a social scientist or on an expert on social organization. Instead, he was a Human Ecology prof at UC Santa Barbara (my home institution) where he taught until his 1978 retirement. (Morbid side note: he and his wife killed themselves in a 2003 suicide pact.) 9/
Have you read Hardin’s Science essay lately? It’s a mind-numbingly racist piece. And not in a subtle way that demands 2019 woke analysis. Spend the 20 minutes and do it. It’s an ethical mess from beginning to end. 10/
There are headings like “Freedom to Breed is Intolerable”, under which Hardin imagines the benefits that might accrue if “children of improvident parents starve to death”, an outcome stymied (a bad thing to him), by the welfare state. 11/
For these reasons, he campaigned against such programs as Food for Peace. A few paragraphs later: “If we love the truth we must openly deny the validity of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” I think you get the idea. 12/
Something I’ve been meaning to say about The Tragedy of the Commons. Bear with me for a small thread on why our embrace of Hardin is a stain on environmentalism. tldr: we’ve let a flawed metaphor by a racist ecologist define environmental thinking for a half century. 1/
9:21 AM – Mar 4, 2019
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