Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Tragedy Of The Commons II, Freedom In A Commons

Today's illustration is a portrait of Gregory Bateson and a quote from one of his letters. It's meant as a comment on the seventh paragraph below, the one that ends "freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.

This is the first section in Tragedy after the introduction. It’s headed “Tragedy of Freedom in a Commons.”

The first paragraph in this section is complicated. Hardin says the rebuttal to “the invisible hand” argument is “to be found in a scenario first sketched in a little-known pamphlet (from) 1833 by a mathematical amateur named William Forster Lloyd.”

Hardin calls it the “tragedy of the commons,” and says he is using the word “tragedy” as Whitehead (A. N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, Mentor, NY, 1948) used it and quotes him: “ ‘The essence of tragedy is not unhappiness. It resides in the solemnity of the remorseless workings of things.’” Hardin: “This inevitableness of destiny can only be illustrated in terms of human life by incidents which in fact involve unhappiness. For it is only by them that the futility of escape can be made evident in the drama.” It’s futile to escape from the consequences of our actions. Fire burns, bees sting, you fall if you jump off a bridge.

We’re supposed to picture a “pasture open to all,” where each herdsman keeps as many cattle as possible. Various factors -- conflict, poaching, disease -- keep human and bovine numbers below carrying capacity. When these factors abate, “the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.” In other words when conflict, poaching, and disease no longer limit human and animal numbers, the numbers crash the commons.

Each herdsman rationally tried to maximize his gain. If the herdsman adds one animal he gets all the benefit from that animal’s meat or sale. The land is overgrazed by one animal, but that cost is distributed among all the herdsmen, so he comes out ahead.

A rational herdsman can’t help but add more animals, but everybody who uses the pasture comes to the same conclusion, so they add a lot more animals. Each herdsman is locked into a system that “compels him to increase his herd without limit -- in a world that is limited.” Hardin says, “Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”

Hardin believes we learned that “freedom in a commons brings ruin to all” thousand of years ago, but “natural selection favors the forces of psychological denial.” The individual benefits even as his society suffers. Education can correct the tendency to do the wrong thing, but the lesson needs to be refreshed over and over.

Hardin refers to an incident in which a city government facing increased demand for parking at Christmas time mistakenly re-instituted the commons by placing bags over its parking meters. He come back to parking meters later in the essay, calling them a way of legislating temperance.

The logic of the commons has been understood for a long time, “perhaps since the discovery of agriculture or the invention of private property.” He says that understanding needs to be generalized. He mentions western cattlemen’s pressuring the Bureau of Land Management to increase head limits on federal land, and maritime nations’ over-fishing international waters.

He gives the limited National Park System and increased visitor loads two paragraphs, one describing the wear that visitors cause, and another offering suggestions.

* Sell the Parks;

* Entry based on wealth (make fees exhorbitant);

* Entry based on merit (only approved scholars, scientists, and artists admitted);

* Entry based on lottery;

* Entry based on position in a queue.

He believes these are all objectionable solutions, but that we must choose or acquiesce in the destruction of the commons that we call our national Parks.

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