Ian Angus, &The Myth of the Tragedy of the Commons&
Why Does the Herder Want More?
Hardin’s argument started with the unproven assertion that herdsmen always want to expand their herds: “It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. . . . As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain.”
In short, Hardin’s conclusion was predetermined by his assumptions. “It is to be expected” that each herdsman will try to maximize the size of his herd — and each one does exactly that. It’s a circular argument that proves nothing.
Hardin assumed that human nature is selfish and unchanging and that society is just an assemblage of self-interested individuals who don’t care about the impact of their actions on the community. The same idea, explicitly or implicitly, is a fundamental component of mainstream (i.e., pro-capitalist) economic theory.
All the evidence (not to mention common sense) shows that this is absurd: people are social beings, and society is much more than the arithmetic sum of its members. Even capitalist society, which rewards the most anti-social behavior, has not crushed human cooperation and solidarity. The very fact that for centuries “rational herdsmen” did not overgraze the commons disproves Hardin’s most fundamental assumptions — but that hasn’t stopped him or his disciples from erecting policy castles on foundations of sand.
Even if the herdsman wanted to behave as Hardin described, he couldn’t do so unless certain conditions existed.
There would have to be a market for the cattle, and he would have to be focused on producing for that market, not for local consumption. He would have to have enough capital to buy the additional cattle and the fodder they would need in winter. He would have to be able to hire workers to care for the larger herd, build bigger barns, etc. And his desire for profit would have to outweigh his interest in the long-term survival of his community.
In short, Hardin didn’t describe the behavior of herdsmen in pre-capitalist farming communities — he described the behavior of capitalists operating in a capitalist economy. The universal human nature that he claimed would always destroy common resources is actually the profit-driven “grow or die” behavior of corporations.”
Some good references as well:
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