Mythical Myths No 7

In “The Myth of the Tragedy of the Commons”, Ian Angus claims that the phenomenon commonly called a “tragedy of the commons” is a myth. But he is wrong. Anyone who is aware of the fate of the Atlantic cod fishery must know the tragedy of an unregulated commons, so the phenomenon is surely real. It is real, and Angus has been blinded by his anger at those who have (ab)used the phenomenon into denying the phenomenon itself rather than the arguments by which it has been (falsely) claimed to justify privatization of public assets.

In Two Lectures on the Checks to Population,

William Forster, in 1833, wrote

“Why are the cattle on a common so puny and stunted ?  Why is the common itself so bare-worn, and cropped so differently from adjoining inclosures? No inequality, in respect of natural or acquired fertility, will account for the phenomenon. The difference depends on the difference of the way in which an increase of stock in the two cases affects the circumstances of the author of the increase. If a person puts more cattle into his own field, the amount of the subsistence which they consume is all deducted from that which was at the command, of his original stock ; and if, before, there was no more than a sufficiency of pasture, he reaps no benefit from the additional cattle, what is gained in one way being lost in another. But if he puts more cattle on a common, the food which they consume forms a deduction which is shared between all the cattle, as well that of others as his own, in proportion to their number, and only a small part of it is taken from his own cattle.”

Forster’s use of this parable was primarily as an analogy for the impact of an unregulated labour market on human fecundity and an argument against the efficacy of moral restraint as a means for controlling population growth, but others have taken it more directly as an argument for increased control of shared resources.

Most famously, in 1968, biologist Garret Hardin coined the phrase “Tragedy of the Commons” to label this parable and used it as the title of an essay in Science magazine where he argued for such control in various contexts.

Since one way to establish control is to assign private ownership, many have claimed the “tragedy of the commons” as a rationale for privatization of shared resources, but according to the above-linked Wikipedia article, Hardin himself apparently identified other alternatives and later said that he should have titled his work “The Tragedy of the Unregulated Commons”.[4]

Regardless of what Hardin actually intended, or of his merits on this or other issues, it is pretty obvious that the phenomenon does occur, so the idea that it is just a myth is itself a myth.

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