The Pitfalls of Public Spheres
By Tibor Machan - January 17, 2013

"Each fancies that no harm will come to his neglect…" – Thucydides

Everyone has an incentive to use resources freely available to all… but none has a corresponding incentive to conserve or replenish the resources. Parcels privately held are better cared for. The resource that ends up ravaged will be freedom itself.

"The tragedy of the commons," a phrase coined by Garrett Hardin in a famous 1968 article, refers to the cumulative depletion or spoliation of natural resources to which no one holds deed but to which everyone may use. The commons in question might be a pasture in which every herdsman's cattle can graze, a lake every fisherman can trawl, a park every tourist can trash or the atmosphere. Because people pursue their goals with the means available to them, perhaps perfectly innocently, everyone has an incentive to use resources that are freely available to all, but none has a corresponding incentive to conserve or replenish the resources.

"Picture a pasture open to all," Hardin notes. "It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy."

Hardin's principle was known as early as the ancient Greeks (as well as to Thucydides). "That all persons call the same thing mine in the sense in which each does so may be a fine thing, but it is impracticable," explained Aristotle in his Politics. "For that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it…. For besides other considerations, everybody is more inclined to neglect the duty which he expects another to fulfill; as in families many attendants are often less useful than a few."

When parcels are privately held, owners have good reason to ensure that the resources of their lands are properly cared for. They may, for example, charge users in proportion to the amount of usage. They may plant seeds. They may send in cleaning crews. Because they receive definite benefits as a result of paying the cost of maintenance, they will most likely pay it. So, many agree now that extensive privatization of what are now treated as public properties – certainly all public enterprises, as well as lakes, rivers, beaches, forests, and even the air mass – will help sustain those resources and lead to more efficient development and exploitation of them.

Ducks Unlimited, a free-market wildlife conservation organization, was founded in the Great Depression in North America to preserve duck hunting for the next generations. Wildlife biologists were hired to determine the basic problem, which was habitat reduction and degradation from agricultural pressures in the Canadian and American northern plains "pothole country" where the waterfowl breed, and in the American flyways where they rest during their annual migrations.

Ducks Unlimited raises money to purchase sensitive breeding areas and way stations thereby preventing their development, manages those lands as waterfowl refuges and works with farmers to manage their lands in ways that will be more hospitable to wildlife populations. The organization has rehabilitated well over 8 million acres of wetland in the US, Canada, and Mexico. It does not practice an unlimited free market: Many of its properties are turned over to state and provincial fish and game departments for long-term management, and it contracts with the government for many of its projects. It shows, though, how an enlightened pursuit of private goals can promote environmental advantage – even in a 40-percent-plus tax regime.

Worldwide the biggest danger to wildlife populations is the destruction of habitat wrought by the pressures of population growth and agricultural expansion. The problem is exacerbated by the dominant model of wildlife ownership, which is socialist. Wildlife is deemed "property" of the state, even when it inhabits or encroaches upon private property. Then it's the exerciser of property rights who becomes the endangered species.

The problem is acute in sub-Saharan Africa. There subsistence farmers in the outback must continually if illegally combat the encroachments of "state-owned" wildlife. In many areas, hunting is outlawed, leading to local explosions in wildlife populations, which then spill out of their native habitat. That poaching is rampant under such circumstances should not come as a shock.

The solution? To turn over "ownership" of the wildlife to the villages or landowners. Wildlife then becomes a benefit, bringing in hard currency from tourists, for example. Poachers now benefit from protecting and managing a valuable resource. The results have been a gratifying reduction in poaching, an increase in wildlife populations and more effective containment of it.

In the US, "preservationist" organizations like the Sierra Club seek to "save" swatches of habitat by lobbying the government to purchase environmentally sensitive and exceptionally beautiful land for parks and preserves. But the bulk of ongoing environmental funding has been contributed by those "conservationists" (chiefly hunters and fishers) who believe, not just in the preservation of environmental resources (under glass case, perhaps), but in the wise use of them.

And therein lies both the key to the success of current fish and wildlife policy, and a clue as to how a non-coercive, libertarian environmental policy can proceed. For, in spite of the basically socialist ownership scheme, state and federal fish and wildlife programs are almost totally financed by user fees and (more nebulously) excise taxes on sporting arms, ammunition and fishing tackle. (An excise tax is no voluntary fee but at least it has a plausible connection to the purposes being funded – if the moneys collected are indeed funneled as promised, something that doesn't always happen with, say, the gas tax.)

User-funded fish and game programs are among our biggest environmental success stories. Many big-game species have made quantum leaps from their low points at the turn of the last century–there are more deer in North America now than there were at the time of Columbus and once-endangered alligators are now endangering golfers in parts of Texas, Louisiana and Florida! And no managed game species has ever gone extinct since the advent of managed sport hunting early in this century.

These examples from Africa and North America show that the environment would not get short shrift in a private market. It's very difficult to subject all valued resources, including air and water, to privatization – although not impossible, as some argue. Personal and property injury law could deal with much of what goes awry in these spheres.


The tragedy of the commons extends far beyond the environment; as Hardin himself argued, it has hitherto been best understood in special cases "which are not sufficiently generalized." The tragedy can afflict any arena in which resources are produced and then used – and in which in the link between causes and effects, benefits and costs, has been severed. Consider the US Treasury, which so many groups work hard to raid.

Even alleged solutions to the tragedy of the commons can suffer that same tragedy. Hardin, for example, despite an otherwise often astute analysis, believed that the way to solve the problem is ratcheting up the government controls. But such controls are themselves imposed by bureaucrats who are not obliged to directly bear the cost of that control. They cause further problems which invite yet more controls as remedy, and so on. If the process continues unchecked, the result is a fully state managed system. Hardin would have shied away from that end game, but he mentioned no principle that could definitively interrupt the approach to full socialization at any point, once the regulatory premise is ceded.

Under such a system all resources whatever are treated as a vast blob of commons. Goods are extracted from all "according to ability," distributed to all "according to need." The link between cause and effect, costs and benefits is severed in such a society-wide commons. As a result, not a mere pasture but an entire economy is devastated (as well as the spirits of the people). The more vigorously a given society strives for the "ideal" of full socialism, the more rapidly the pasture will be plundered.

It's fantasy, of course. There is no way to forcibly refashion human beings into the angelic ants they'd have to be to approach the socialist dream of absolute and full equality. Individuals will rarely think first and foremost of the common interest. Even those who give it a serious try won't succeed because they will not be able to obtain the needed information to learn exactly what that alleged interest is. The common good consists of a lot of varied individual goods, the requirements for the fulfilling of which can be known best and acted upon best by the individual whose interests they are.

Indeed, the only universal, common good is a general framework that enables everyone to seek that which he deems to be important. The provision of a system of laws makes such diverse pursuits of the good life possible. The American Founders identified such a system, one that accommodates the rights of to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – with what that pursuit consists of left to each individual.

Welfare states and the tragedy: Although our own welfare state permits much more autonomous action than a fully socialist one would, it manifests the tragedy of the commons as well in the growing public sphere. An individual acting on his own must work hard for his paycheck. He expends time and effort. He may bear further costs if he thoughtlessly fritters away his funds. If he manages his budget responsibly, however, he enjoys peace of mind in addition to the goods and services he can obtain. So there is a direct and cordial relationship between how carefully an individual deploys personally earned resources and the benefits he achieves.

The market rewards those who behave responsibly. By contrast, the only cost that pleaders for government largesse must directly expend in return for the largesse they receive is that involved in pleading for their cut of the take. In other words, they must incur the cost of lobbying. The typical recipient of the benefits of government subsidy or regulation has little economic incentive to spurn what he's "got coming" – whether or not he or she proclaims, when polled, that taxes are too high or that "something must be done about the federal debt."

The democratic vote itself is an indirect means of seeking benefits from scarce resources without the inconvenience of any limits to what those voting may consume. Whether it's labor unions or educators or scientists, everyone gropes for as much from the public treasury as possible, and many elected officials faithfully play along. Sometimes this means appointed people who favor one's projects to the appropriate regulatory bodies. Thus the denizens of the Departments of Labor, Agriculture, or Energy may well engage in the same unfettered exploitation as the cattle owners whose cattle graze in a common pasture.*

Wait, there's more. One of the most difficult of legal dilemmas is how to protect individual rights to free expression in public realms. For example, citizens may wish to express their urgent dismay about something on public roads to which others citizens believe they are entitled for purposes of transportation. During the Gulf War, traffic was brought to standstill in San Francisco when residents there wanted to protest US involvement in the conflict; someone suffering a heart attack at the time might have preferred his goal of getting to the hospital.

Perhaps as a matter of common sense public roads must clearly remain available to serve their intended purpose. But other conflicts of interest are more ambiguous. The reason so many conflicts involving religious observance at public schools seem so intractable is that whenever one acts in public spheres, one falls, at least de jure, under the rules of public policy. In a public high school, therefore, any kind of religious expression, even the most innocuous, comes into conflict (or at least is said to come into conflict) with the constitutional prohibition of the state's establishment of religion. And of late, school officials have even gone so far as to ban the Boy Scouts from their premises, on the grounds that the Boy Scouts discriminate against gays. There may be no constitutional issue there, and it may seem unreasonable to punish local kids for an organization's national policy. But do public officials exercising publicly granted authority in public places have this kind of discretion or not? If you don't like a company's policy, you go somewhere else. That has not been so easy to do under the public school monopoly (especially prior to the recent growth in home schooling, charter schools, vouchers and other educational privatization).

*For more check out Tibor R. Machan, Ed., The Commons: Its Tragedy and Other Follies (Hoover Institution Press, 2001)

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