This year marks the fortieth anniversary of an influential yet little known manifesto. In the December 1968 issue of Science magazine, within months of San Francisco’s “summer of love,” University of California biologist Garrett Hardin published his revolutionary essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons.” In barely a dozen pages, cited ever after by countless public-policy articles, Hardin argues the iron necessity of the political regulation of human fertility to avoid “the evils of overpopulation.” His argument has proven a major moment in the ongoing transmogrification of Western civilization from regimes of vaguely Christian citizenship, into autonomous public administrations bearing the sovereign authority of science.
In “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Hardin means to dig out the very roots of modernity and “explicitly exorcize the spirit of Adam Smith in the field of practical demography”which is to say, spontaneous, autonomous parenthood. He argues that there is no “technical solution” to the problem of overpopulation and pollution; the newly invented Pill will not in itself reverse the glowering Malthusian storm. Individualistic rationality inexorably leads to the over-use, over-crowding, and destruction of the “commons,” humanity’s shared resources. This Tragedy of the Commons is never more inevitable than in the case of “the desire for children,” the “commons in breeding.” What Hardin calls a “moral solution” is urgently needed.
That term “moral” might suggest this solution involves public education in the virtues of birth control, but Hardin’s argument runs deeper. In a regime of free morality, in the long-run, cheaters always win. A few unrestrained breeders will soon outnumber the responsible rest. Further, public morality always involves an appeal to guilt. As our erstwhile Puritanism shows (the “dreadful Dark Ages of Eros,” he calls it), the guilt unleashed by public moralism always has “pathogenic effects.” So Hardin rejects the use of public “propaganda” and its self-defeating cultivation of anxiety in individual consciences. The only “moral” alternative is administrative. New “social relationships” are needed, arising through the implementation ofwait for it“coercive legislation.” Clear scientific facts (or projections) must lead to such a “recognition of necessity.”
For all its misrepresentations and false dichotomies, Hardin’s essay cannot be dismissed as a mere jeremiad. Hugh Hefner once described himself as a pamphleteer of the sexual revolution, while Alfred Kinsey was its philosopher; the same sort of relationship exists between the environmental propaganda of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Hardin’s thought. In the name of necessity, he invokes the ultimately disastrous consequencestime-frame unspecifiedof bourgeois freedom. Bound within an impoverished dichotomy of a laissez-faire market versus a coercive administration, he heralds a fundamental, still on-going revolution in thought, discrediting the entire logic of the democratic-republican regime of free citizenship. But, one might ask, in favor of . . . what?
Hardin argues that the attempt to protect the “commons” with a culture of moderation is inevitably doomed by the rationality of over-grazing. In a pasture open to all, “each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons.” As long as war, poaching, and disease keep numbers low, collective use of the commons will remain “well below the carrying capacity of the land.” Given an epoch of peace, however, each rational herdsman, seeking to maximize gain, weighs the benefits and costs of “adding one more animal to my herd.” He gains the full benefit of the animal, but suffers only a small share of the costs of overgrazing, borne with the other villagers. So his only sensible course is to add another animal . . . and another and another. Each rational herdsman is “locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limitin a world that is limited.” With each pursuing his own best interest, “all men rush to ruin,” and thus “freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”
Political Science 101 students will recognize Hardin's "Tragedy of the Commons" as a variant of the old Free Rider Dilemma. If everyone sneaks onto the city bus, the argument goes, the public transit system goes bankrupt; but if I sneak aboard, my missing fare does no harm, and my stealthy misdemeanor does not encourage further cheating. This dilemma has served to argue either the need for punitive law or the need for consciencefor either the execution of fare-box cheaters, or the perennial dependence of desiccated bourgeois rationality on public spiritedness. With child-bearing, however, Hardin leans toward the first alternative. He sees only two choices in this human tragedy: privatization and regulation. Since the environment is limited and cannot be privatized, “hard decisions” and even “injustice” are necessary in order to “abandon the commons in breeding” and escape “the misery of overpopulation.”
Perhaps deliberately, Hardin never explains who would rule in the regime he proposes. His only formula is “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon by the majority of the people affected.” So he maintains the presumption of something like democracy, but the legitimation of coercion lies in necessity, not consent. He quotes Hegel: “Freedom is the recognition of necessity.” But who defines necessity? Hardin himself claims to speak as a biologist “directly from biological facts,” in his insistence that population mechanics tend remorselessly to one of only two possibilities, coercive population control or disastrous overpopulation.Though moderated by representative institutions, Hardin’s claim to rule--to regulatory control--is not his patriotism, wealth, valor, or sanctity, but his wisdom.
False prophecies abound in “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Hardin introduces the notion of “problems lacking technical solutions” by pointing at the Cold War, a stalemate that was ended a generation later by the mere promise of defensive technology. He suggests that populations have only ever been limited by such external factors as war and disease, when populations typically stabilized for centuries at the “carrying capacity,” not of their land but of their technological culture. He states that no prosperous people ever has a zero growth rate, when indeed prosperous nations always tend first toward population stability, then decadence and depopulation.
Most disingenuously, Hardin implies that the death of the village commons was due to the bourgeois immoderation of the villagers, rather than the irresponsible avarice of the gentry. Charged with protecting their agrarian way of life, but licensed by progressive philosophy, the squires chose freely to enclose the commons, displacing their moderate villagers for the private pasturage and abandoning their dependents in the name of progress. This non-biological revolution (well drawn in Patrick O’Brian’s Yellow Admiral) proved once again Plato’s lesson: Revolutions arise not from the dissatisfaction of the ruled, but from the self-serving, self-destructive rationalizations of their rulers.
Though even scientists may be tempted to lie in service of good causes, Hardin’s prevarications do not touch the deeper, underlying revolution in thought to which he has contributed: the mutation of a merely theoretical dilemmawith an unspecified time-frameinto an immediate practical necessity, that is, treating a mathematical projection sub specie aeternalis as an immediate crisis sub specie temporalis. The claim to rule may be wisdom, but the regime is not Plato’s paradoxical philosopher-king, contemplating the Whole. The modern scientist sees necessity through a stove-pipe specialization, blithely unaware that other specializations (such as economics) may question his premises (as Hardin’s have been mocked by Colin Clark, Roger Revell, Julian Simon, Nicholas Eberstadt, and others).
Politicized scientists ignore political reality. Communities are always threatened by a legion of disasters, “not single spies, but in battalions,” unique, unpredictable, but rarely calamitous. To the rationalist hammer, however, all the world seems a mathematical nail. In trying to deduce policy from science, cosmological demagogues sink beneath the level of prudent praxis, the careful weighing of character and opportunity, down to the level of techne, like accountants generating simple answers to easily defined but irrelevant problems. As Hegel also quipped: “Who thinks abstractly? The uneducated.” The Regime of Science is no philosopher-king, but rather an Aztec astronomer-priest, committed to human sacrifices lest the sun fail to rise tomorrow.
Hardin rejects any “technological solution” to overpopulation, but sees human freedom merely as a technical problem. He treats freedom as an attribute requiring manipulation, not as a perennial reality. He sees freedom generating the Tragedy of the Commons and requiring regulation, but he fails to see that freedom then reasserts itself as the Tragedy of the Administration.
Regulations must be administered by someone. When assigned responsibility for a public good, that someone still faces Satan’s choice between the common and the private good. Bureaucracies adopt accountability regulations, to control those entrusted with regulatory power. But then even the most conscientious clerk faces the mirror-image of the yeoman’s dilemma in the commons. Where the ambitious yeoman could increase his herd, the comfortable administrator can minimize his accountability for any error. His job balances between the public good and the minimization of accountability.
The Tragedy of the Administration thus tends inevitably toward zero-tolerance rules, incontestably certifying bureaucratic compliance in the avoidance of disaster. School principals expel students packing plastic water pistols, demonstrating zero tolerance for career scuttling massacres, but more tolerance for their students’ illiteracy. Airline passengers are denied shampoo bottles, children’s cough drops are banned as drugs, and civil servants are forbidden to use Piglet mugs. The more zero-tolerance regulations metastasize, the more public-spirited administrators may be tempted to ignore them, for the public good. Yet the administration selects against discernment, preferring professionally secure and irresponsible accountability.
Administrative “personal profit maximization” culminates in the “precautionary principle,” promoting debilitating solutions to any possible public disaster. Little professional risk attaches to the prediction of catastrophe; The Population Bomb’s Paul Ehrlich was receiving honorary doctorates twenty-five years past the inevitable date of world starvation. And hypothetical disasters generate real bureaucratic opportunities, from pointless public-recycling agencies to research grants to study the effect of cow flatulence on climate.
Christopher Dawson warned eighty years ago in Progress and Religion that the atrophy of the West’s Christian roots would lead to an uncontrollable spiritual hunger. And now the popular reification of scientific necessity is leading to the apotheosis of nature. No one speaks of adjusting to changing circumstances (like using dikes to restrain supposedly rising seas), but rather of “restoring the balance of nature,” the Tao of Ozone. Mathematical models become stone-carved calendars, provoking the deepest expectations of transgression, retribution, and expiation; climatology becomes the new astrology.
Real disasters come out of left field. The summer of love unleashes all the creative energies of eros (apparently with Hardin‘s approval), and two generations later, the West is threatened by infertility, aging and nihilism. Global warming is all the craze, but the current graphs tend towards cooling. America’s creative energy once seemed threatened by knot-head fundamentalism, only now to be blindsided by new mathematical Mandarins, freely squelching scientific skepticism and multiplying regulatory agencies in the name of the Mandate of Malthus.
Joseph K. Woodard, Ph.D., is vice president of the Canada Family Action Coalition and academic dean of Living Water College of the Arts in Alberta, Canada, which is scheduled to begin operation in the summer of 2009.