1990s >> 1992 >> no-1050-february-1992

Uncommon Tragedy

In 1968 the journal Science published an article by an American biologist, Garrett Hardin, entitled “The Tragedy of the Commons”. Its central argument, that common property leads to ecological ruin, has since become “part of the conventional wisdom in environmental studies, resource science and policy, economics, ecology and political science” (Human Ecology, No 1,1990).

Hardin did not exactly break new ground. Others had already elaborated a theory of the commons along similar lines. Nevertheless the publication of his article struck a chord at a time of growing environmental concern. It echoed the prevailing ethos of ecological pessimism articulated by the emerging environmental lobby and, more particularly, by the authoritarian anti-humanism of its neo-Malthusian wing.

Hardin set out to demonstrate the implications that different systems of property rights had for the sustainable use of natural resources. As the title of his article suggests, his main concern was with a system in which these resources were held in common (in the sense of not being monopolised by anyone).

Unrealistic model

He gave the example of a rangeland on which a population of herdsmen were able to graze their cattle without restriction. While the benefits of adding a head of cattle to his herd would accrue to the individual herdsman alone, the environmental costs of this decision would be shared by all the herdsmen. Thus, from the individual’s viewpoint, these costs would be largely “externalised”. That would encourage him as a rational economic actor to increase his herd still further—and thereby become richer—since the benefits would outweigh the private costs this entailed.

The problem, according to Hardin, was that every other herdsman would be inclined to do the same and thus, ultimately, the combined effect of their actions would be to increase the number of cattle on the commons beyond its carrying capacity. In short, common ownership of the rangeland will lead to tragedy. That the private ownership of the cattle might be equally implicated in his scenario was a point that appears to have escaped Hardin’s notice.

Some economists have tended to see the solution to this problem as something to be imposed from outside or above: leave the existing system of property rights intact but introduce measures such as cattle taxes or quotas to force herdsmen to reduce their stocking rates. An alternative approach, favoured by Hardin, is to enclose, or privatise, the commons. Private ownership, goes the argument, would compel the individual herdsman to bear the full costs of any decision to increase his herd and thus persuade him to maintain a stocking rate compatible with the sustainable use of grazing land. It would also provide the necessary incentive to upgrade pasture because the benefits of doing so would be similarly “internalised”.

Both these approaches concur on one fundamental point: there is no possibility of an internal solution to the “tragedy of the commons”. After all, if there was, there would be no reason to expect a tragedy. Yet it is precisely on this point that the theory is coming under fire.

Wherever a commons has existed it has been associated with a complex pattern of institutional rules governing a distinct community of users; unregulated open access regimes are more typical of sparsely populated frontier zones. As John Reader puts it:

“access to the commons was restricted by entitlement; use was regulated to ensure that no individual could pursue his own interest to the detriment of others. Far from bringing ruin to all, the true commons functioned to keep its exploitation within sustainable limits.”  (New Scientist. 8 September 1988).

There are numerous examples that bear this out, from the traditional Japanese village to Pacific island communities. Some have emerged only recently, such as the case of a number of Turkish coastal fisheries, but many contemporary examples have been in existence for hundreds of years. Indeed, it is the very persistence of the commons as an institution which testifies, in the view of some, to its inherent stability.

Carlisle Ford Runge has presented a cogent critique of Hardin’s theory (American Journal of Agricultural Economics, November 1981), in which he argues that it is not the existence of a commons that is the problem but uncertainty in the context of interdependent decision-making. Hardin assumes that the decisions reached by his herdsmen are made in isolation from one another. A more appropriate model, Runge suggests, permits communication between the parties concerned. In this way a compromise could be struck between them which results in a better outcome than would otherwise be possible.

Within actually existing pastoral societies such mutual assurance is secured through the institutionalisation of rules that allow herders to adapt their behaviour in the light of the expected behaviour of others. Once established, herders have a vested interest in maintaining such rules through the exercise of moral sanctions because of the high opportunity costs involved in finding an alternative. Group size may be an important consideration insofar as it affects the transmission of information within, and the cohesiveness of, the group.

Significantly, Hardin felt compelled to qualify his theory in his response to Reader’s article when he explained that the title of his article should have been “The tragedy of the unmanaged commons” (New Scientist, 22 October 1988). But since the commons as a rule are not unmanaged, this made the whole relevance of his theory questionable.

Land enclosures

When we look at the historical development of private property it is abundantly clear that what characterises this process above all is its coercive nature. The gradual demise of the commons in Britain from the 15th century onwards was not the result of their decline into ecological ruin. It was the deliberate result of the state’s policy of land enclosure to meet the agricultural capitalists’ demand for more land.

This same process of land enclosure is still going on in many parts of the Third World today. In the colonial era, conservationist arguments were often used to justify the appropriation of other people’s land. Communal tenure was dismissed as “primitive” and “unscientific”, and conducive to poor economic performance as well as environmental deterioration. By and large, these same attitudes continue to inform the policies of many post-colonial regimes. As Vink and Kassier point out, there are “numerous examples of livestock development projects in sub-Saharan Africa which have, implicitly or explicitly, been based on the tragedy of the commons hypothesis” (South African Journal of Economics, No 2, 1987). Such projects have sought to substitute private for communal tenure but have been “characterised by a pervading sense of failure”.

There is scant evidence to show that environmental management of rangelands has improved as a result of introducing private ownership. On the contrary, the undermining of communal institutions in the Sahel and Southern Africa has led to increased overgrazing. Land enclosures in drought-prone semi-arid areas preclude the application of traditional risk-avoidance grazing strategies involving the movement of cattle to less vulnerable areas. Moreover, the commercialisation of agriculture accompanying the spread of private tenure tends to make the private rancher vulnerable to the vagaries of the market. So, while, in theory, private tenure may induce them to maintain sustainable stocking rates by internalising their environmental costs, economic pressures often force them to disregard these costs to ensure short-term viability.

The social consequences of land enclosures have almost invariably proved calamitous. While some may benefit—usually government officials and multinational corporations—the high transaction and enforcement costs (such as stock-proof fencing) preclude most from participation in such schemes. This results in large-scale land eviction, increased inequality and rising discontent.

The small yeoman farmers evicted by the Enclosure Acts in Britain had little option but to migrate to the towns were some prospect of employment awaited them. In much of the Third World today, however, urban employment opportunities are few and far between and are declining still further under the current fad for “structural adjustment”. Many of those displaced by land enclosures tend to end up in the more ecologically marginal areas which are subsequently degraded under this strain.

Property and pollution

Despite his advocacy of private property, Hardin had to recognise its limitations where it concerned other kinds of natural resources to which—unlike his example of a rangeland—it was difficult, if not impossible, to prevent open access. As he put it. “the air and the waters surrounding us cannot be so readily fenced”.

But he saw the tragedy of the commons reappearing here in another form, as pollution, when a “rational man finds that his share of the costs of the wastes he discharges into the commons is less than the cost of purifying his wastes before releasing them”. Even where privatisation on a limited scale could be introduced the basic problem would remain:

“The owner of a factory on the bank of a stream—whose property extends to the middle of the stream—often has difficulty seeing why it is not his natural right to muddy the waters flowing past his door.”

For Hardin, the solution to this problem necessarily entailed some infringement of the rights of property owners. In this regard, he saw a role for the state. However, the difficulty with this approach is that, though the state may have more room for manoeuvre, it is subject to the same competitive pressures that face industry on which it depends for its tax revenue. Ironically, state enterprises are often among the worst transgressors when it comes to pollution.

Hardin’s theory of the commons is basically an attempt to vindicate the principle of private property in respect of the Earth’s resources. As such it can be shown to be both empirically suspect and theoretically unsound. In the counter-arguments it has provoked, we can glimpse the potential of a sustainable alternative to the imposed monopoly on what should be our common heritage.

ROBIN COX

Leave a Reply