Head of a Young Girl, c1740s – 1750s. Oil on canvas. By Francois Boucher
In his 1968 essay “The tragedy of the commons,” Garrett Hardin argued that unrestricted access to resources held in common, and, likewise, unrestricted ability to dump waste, inexorably leads to the destruction of the commons. At the time, he may not have suspected that the term would become a formidable propaganda weapon in the hands of those who would do exactly what he was arguing against—used to sing the virtues of unrestrained self-interest while destroying the ecosystems on which we, along with all life, depend for our survival.
Later on Hardin said that perhaps he should have called it “The Tragedy of the Unregulated Commons,” because in his article he presented another concept—that of negative commons, now better known as externalities, of which air and water pollution are prime examples. Since the Earth’s atmosphere and the oceans are rather difficult to privatize, this poses a general moral challenge to society. If everyone concerns themselves only with their own interests (taking while the taking is good, not expending effort on collective efforts since they are a waste of one’s precious time, and so on) one cannot avoid the tragedy of the commons.
The full essay is at the link. I must not be a complete cynic yet since I am a little surprised that we’re still having this debate in the U.S. and Europe, and increasingly in Asia. Even those who do not have children remember being a child. We had to have some limits on our behavior because it could be damaging to people and property, and endangered ourselves. Sure strictly speaking our adult caregivers were taking away freedom, but they did so for obviously good reason. The same code of behavior applies writ large to coal companies, oil companies and manufacturers. Given complete freedom or the license to run wild, they will, and have done, even with regulation, considerable damage and wasted tremendous amounts of resources. Such behavior is beyond irresponsible it borders on nihilism. They seem to operate on the assumption that either there is no future to worry about, or screw future generations. Conservatives and libertarians who think this way – and there are millions who do – can make many claims about their behavior, be moral is not one of them.