Monday, November 9, 2009

Reading Hardin's The Tragedy Of The Commons

Everybody should read Garrett Hardin’s The Tragedy of the Commons. It gets used occasionally to make a case for something or other, most commonly that many marginal excesses will exhaust a common resource. I’ve also heard a utility spokesman seem to use it to say that commons like the atmosphere should be privately held, because responsibility comes from ownership. You could take that from it, but making a case for owning the sky because you're currently polluting it is pretty brassy.

Hardin wrote Tragedy in the late sixties, about population. He makes a case for society’s having an interest in how enthusiastically families breed. He talks about freedom, and “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon,” but even he hints that population is only a special case, and that his essay is about more.

What is the “tragedy of the commons”? It is that individuals “rationally” maximizing their own gains from a common resource inevitably ruin the resource.

Instead of one long essay of mine, I’ll post my notes outlining Hardin’s paper, one section per day, along with some comments or clarification where they seem needed. You can read the original paper here, along with a friendly objection.

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