The Tragedy of the Commons
Garrett Hardin (1968)
"The Tragedy of the Commons," Garrett Hardin, Science,
At the end of a thoughtful article on the future of nuclear war, J.B.
Wiesner and H.F. York concluded that: "Both sides in the arms race
are…confronted by the dilemma of steadily increasing military power and
steadily decreasing national security. It is our considered professional
judgment that this dilemma has no technical solution. If the great powers
continue to look for solutions in the area of science and technology only, the
result will be to worsen the situation.'' 
I would like to focus your attention not on the subject of the article
(national security in a nuclear world) but on the kind of conclusion they
reached, namely that there is no technical solution to the problem. An implicit
and almost universal assumption of discussions published in professional and
semipopular scientific journals is that the problem under discussion has a
technical solution. A technical solution may be defined as one that requires a
change only in the techniques of the natural sciences, demanding little or
nothing in the way of change in human values or ideas of morality.
In our day (though not in earlier times) technical solutions are always
welcome. Because of previous failures in prophecy, it takes courage to assert
that a desired technical solution is not possible. Wiesner and York exhibited
this courage; publishing in a science journal, they insisted that the solution
to the problem was not to be found in the natural sciences. They cautiously
qualified their statement with the phrase, "It is our considered
professional judgment...." Whether they were right or not is not the
concern of the present article. Rather, the concern here is with the important
concept of a class of human problems which can be called "no technical
solution problems," and more specifically, with the identification and
discussion of one of these.
It is easy to show that the class is not a null class. Recall the game of
tick-tack-toe. Consider the problem, "How can I win the game of
tick-tack-toe?" It is well known that I cannot, if I assume (in keeping
with the conventions of game theory) that my opponent understands the game
perfectly. Put another way, there is no "technical solution" to the
problem. I can win only by giving a radical meaning to the word
"win." I can hit my opponent over the head; or I can falsify the
records. Every way in which I "win" involves, in some sense, an
abandonment of the game, as we intuitively understand it. (I can also, of
course, openly abandon the game — refuse to play it. This is what most
The class of "no technical solution problems" has members. My
thesis is that the "population problem," as conventionally conceived,
is a member of this class. How it is conventionally conceived needs some
comment. It is fair to say that most people who anguish over the population
problem are trying to find a way to avoid the evils of overpopulation without
relinquishing any of the privileges they now enjoy. They think that farming the
seas or developing new strains of wheat will solve the problem —
technologically. I try to show here that the solution they seek cannot be
found. The population problem cannot be solved in a technical way, any more
than can the problem of winning the game of tick-tack-toe.
What Shall We Maximize?
Population, as Malthus said, naturally tends to grow
"geometrically," or, as we would now say, exponentially. In a finite
world this means that the per-capita share of the world's goods must decrease.
Is ours a finite world?
A fair defense can be put forward for the view that the world is infinite or
that we do not know that it is not. But, in terms of the practical problems
that we must face in the next few generations with the foreseeable technology,
it is clear that we will greatly increase human misery if we do not, during the
immediate future, assume that the world available to the terrestrial human
population is finite. "Space" is no escape. 
A finite world can support only a finite population; therefore, population
growth must eventually equal zero. (The case of perpetual wide fluctuations
above and below zero is a trivial variant that need not be discussed.) When
this condition is met, what will be the situation of mankind? Specifically, can
Bentham's goal of "the greatest good for the greatest number" be
No — for two reasons, each sufficient by itself. The first is a
theoretical one. It is not mathematically possible to maximize for two (or
more) variables at the same time. This was clearly stated by von Neumann and
Morgenstern,  but the principle is implicit in
the theory of partial differential equations, dating back at least to
The second reason springs directly from biological facts. To live, any
organism must have a source of energy (for example, food). This energy is
utilized for two purposes: mere maintenance and work. For man maintenance of
life requires about 1600 kilocalories a day ("maintenance calories").
Anything that he does over and above merely staying alive will be defined as
work, and is supported by "work calories" which he takes in. Work
calories are used not only for what we call work in common speech; they are
also required for all forms of enjoyment, from swimming and automobile racing
to playing music and writing poetry. If our goal is to maximize population it
is obvious what we must do: We must make the work calories per person approach
as close to zero as possible. No gourmet meals, no vacations, no sports, no
music, no literature, no art…I think that everyone will grant, without
argument or proof, that maximizing population does not maximize goods.
Bentham's goal is impossible.
In reaching this conclusion I have made the usual assumption that it is the
acquisition of energy that is the problem. The appearance of atomic energy has
led some to question this assumption. However, given an infinite source of
energy, population growth still produces an inescapable problem. The problem of
the acquisition of energy is replaced by the problem of its dissipation, as J.
H. Fremlin has so wittily shown.  The
arithmetic signs in the analysis are, as it were, reversed; but Bentham's goal
The optimum population is, then, less than the maximum. The difficulty of
defining the optimum is enormous; so far as I know, no one has seriously
tackled this problem. Reaching an acceptable and stable solution will surely
require more than one generation of hard analytical work — and much
We want the maximum good per person; but what is good? To one person it is
wilderness, to another it is ski lodges for thousands. To one it is estuaries
to nourish ducks for hunters to shoot; to another it is factory land. Comparing
one good with another is, we usually say, impossible because goods are
incommensurable. Incommensurables cannot be compared.
Theoretically this may be true; but in real life incommensurables are
commensurable. Only a criterion of judgment and a system of weighting are
needed. In nature the criterion is survival. Is it better for a species to be
small and hideable, or large and powerful? Natural selection commensurates the
incommensurables. The compromise achieved depends on a natural weighting of the
values of the variables.
Man must imitate this process. There is no doubt that in fact he already
does, but unconsciously. It is when the hidden decisions are made explicit that
the arguments begin. The problem for the years ahead is to work out an
acceptable theory of weighting. Synergistic effects, nonlinear variation, and
difficulties in discounting the future make the intellectual problem difficult,
but not (in principle) insoluble.
Has any cultural group solved this practical problem at the present time,
even on an intuitive level? One simple fact proves that none has: there is no
prosperous population in the world today that has, and has had for some time, a
growth rate of zero. Any people that has intuitively identified its optimum
point will soon reach it, after which its growth rate becomes and remains zero.
Of course, a positive growth rate might be taken as evidence that a
population is below its optimum. However, by any reasonable standards, the most
rapidly growing populations on earth today are (in general) the most miserable.
This association (which need not be invariable) casts doubt on the optimistic
assumption that the positive growth rate of a population is evidence that it
has yet to reach its optimum.
We can make little progress in working toward optimum population size until
we explicitly exorcise the spirit of Adam Smith in the field of practical
demography. In economic affairs, The Wealth of Nations (1776)
popularized the "invisible hand," the idea that an individual who
"intends only his own gain," is, as it were, "led by an
invisible hand to promote…the public interest."  Adam Smith did not assert that this was invariably
true, and perhaps neither did any of his followers. But he contributed to a
dominant tendency of thought that has ever since interfered with positive
action based on rational analysis, namely, the tendency to assume that
decisions reached individually will, in fact, be the best decisions for an
entire society. If this assumption is correct it justifies the continuance of
our present policy of laissez faire in reproduction. If it is correct we
can assume that men will control their individual fecundity so as to produce
the optimum population. If the assumption is not correct, we need to reexamine
our individual freedoms to see which ones are defensible.
Tragedy of Freedom in a Commons
The rebuttal to the invisible hand in population control is to be found in a
scenario first sketched in a little-known Pamphlet in 1833 by a mathematical
amateur named William Forster Lloyd (1794-1852).  We may well call it "the tragedy of the
commons," using the word "tragedy" as the philosopher Whitehead
used it : "The essence of dramatic tragedy
is not unhappiness. It resides in the solemnity of the remorseless working of
things." He then goes on to say, "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."
The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to
all. 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.
As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or
implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, "What is the utility to
me of adding one more animal to my herd?" This utility has one
negative and one positive component.
1. The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal.
Since the herdsman receives all the proceeds from the sale of the additional
animal, the positive utility is nearly + 1.
2. The negative component is a function of the additional overgrazing
created by one more animal. Since, however, the effects of overgrazing are
shared by all the herdsmen, the negative utility for any particular
decisionmaking herdsman is only a fraction of - 1.
Adding together the component partial utilities, the rational herdsman
concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another
animal to his herd. And another.... But this is the conclusion reached by each
and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man
is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit
— in a world that is limited. 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.
Some would say that this is a platitude. Would that it were! In a sense, it
was learned thousands of years ago, but natural selection favors the forces of
psychological denial.  The individual benefits
as an individual from his ability to deny the truth even though society as a
whole, of which he is a part, suffers. Education can counteract the natural
tendency to do the wrong thing, but the inexorable succession of generations
requires that the basis for this knowledge be constantly refreshed.
A simple incident that occurred a few years ago in Leominster, Massachusetts
shows how perishable the knowledge is. During the Christmas shopping season the
parking meters downtown were covered with plastic bags that bore tags reading:
"Do not open until after Christmas. Free parking courtesy of the mayor and
city council." In other words, facing the prospect of an increased demand
for already scarce space, the city fathers reinstituted the system of the
commons. (Cynically, we suspect that they gained more votes than they lost by
this retrogressive act.)
In an approximate way, the logic of the commons has been understood for a
long time, perhaps since the discovery of agriculture or the invention of
private property in real estate. But it is understood mostly only in special
cases which are not sufficiently generalized. Even at this late date, cattlemen
leasing national land on the Western ranges demonstrate no more than an
ambivalent understanding, in constantly pressuring federal authorities to
increase the head count to the point where overgrazing produces erosion and
weed-dominance. Likewise, the oceans of the world continue to suffer from the
survival of the philosophy of the commons. Maritime nations still respond
automatically to the shibboleth of the "freedom of the seas."
Professing to believe in the "inexhaustible resources of the oceans,"
they bring species after species of fish and whales closer to extinction.
The National Parks present another instance of the working out of the
tragedy of the commons. At present, they are open to all, without limit. The
parks themselves are limited in extent — there is only one Yosemite Valley
— whereas population seems to grow without limit. The values that visitors
seek in the parks are steadily eroded. Plainly, we must soon cease to treat the
parks as commons or they will be of no value to anyone.
What shall we do? We have several options. We might sell them off as private
property. We might keep them as public property, but allocate the right to
enter them. The allocation might be on the basis of wealth, by the use of an
auction system. It might be on the basis of merit, as defined by some
agreedupon standards. It might be by lottery. Or it might be on a
first-come, first-served basis, administered to long queues. These, I think,
are all objectionable. But we must choose — or acquiesce in the
destruction of the commons that we call our National Parks.
In a reverse way, the tragedy of the commons reappears in problems of
pollution. Here it is not a question of taking something out of the commons,
but of putting something in — sewage, or chemical, radioactive, and heat
wastes into water; noxious and dangerous fumes into the air; and distracting
and unpleasant advertising signs into the line of sight. The calculations of
utility are much the same as before. The rational man finds that his share of
the cost of the wastes he discharges into the commons is less than the cost of
purifying his wastes before releasing them. Since this is true for everyone, we
are locked into a system of "fouling our own nest," so long as we
behave only as independent, rational, free enterprisers.
The tragedy of the commons as a food basket is averted by private property,
or something formally like it. But the air and waters surrounding us cannot
readily be fenced, and so the tragedy of the commons as a cesspool must be
prevented by different means, by coercive laws or taxing devices that make it
cheaper for the polluter to treat his pollutants than to discharge them
untreated. We have not progressed as far with the solution of this problem as
we have with the first. Indeed, our particular concept of private property,
which deters us from exhausting the positive resources of the earth, favors
pollution. 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. The law,
always behind the times, requires elaborate stitching and fitting to adapt it
to this newly perceived aspect of the commons.
The pollution problem is a consequence of population. It did not much matter
how a lonely American frontiersman disposed of his waste. "Flowing water
purifies itself every ten miles," my grandfather used to say, and the myth
was near enough to the truth when he was a boy, for there were not too many
people. But as population became denser, the natural chemical and biological
recycling processes became overloaded, calling for a redefinition of property
How to Legislate Temperance?
Analysis of the pollution problem as a function of population density
uncovers a not generally recognized principle of morality, namely: the
morality of an act is a function of the state of the system at the time it is
performed.  Using the commons as a
cesspool does not harm the general public under frontier conditions, because
there is no public; the same behavior in a metropolis is unbearable. A hundred
and fifty years ago a plainsman could kill an American bison, cut out only the
tongue for his dinner, and discard the rest of the animal. He was not in any
important sense being wasteful. Today, with only a few thousand bison left, we
would be appalled at such behavior.
In passing, it is worth noting that the morality of an act cannot be
determined from a photograph. One does not know whether a man killing an
elephant or setting fire to the grassland is harming others until one knows the
total system in which his act appears. "One picture is worth a thousand
words," said an ancient Chinese; but it may take ten thousand words to
validate it. It is as tempting to ecologists as it is to reformers in general
to try to persuade others by way of the photographic shortcut. But the essence
of an argument cannot be photographed: it must be presented rationally —
That morality is system-sensitive escaped the attention of most codifiers of
ethics in the past. "Thou shalt not…" is the form of traditional
ethical directives which make no allowance for particular circumstances. The
laws of our society follow the pattern of ancient ethics, and therefore are
poorly suited to governing a complex, crowded, changeable world. Our epicyclic
solution is to augment statutory law with administrative law. Since it is
practically impossible to spell out all the conditions under which it is safe
to burn trash in the back yard or to run an automobile without
smogcontrol, by law we delegate the details to bureaus. The result is
administrative law, which is rightly feared for an ancient reason —
Quis custodies ipsos custodes? —Who shall watch the watchers
themselves? John Adams said that we must have a "government of laws and
not men." Bureau administrators, trying to evaluate the morality of acts
in the total system, are singularly liable to corruption, producing a
government by men, not laws.
Prohibition is easy to legislate (though not necessarily to enforce); but
how do we legislate temperance? Experience indicates that it can be
accomplished best through the mediation of administrative law. We limit
possibilities unnecessarily if we suppose that the sentiment of Quis
custodiet denies us the use of administrative law. We should rather retain
the phrase as a perpetual reminder of fearful dangers we cannot avoid. The
great challenge facing us now is to invent the corrective feedbacks that are
needed to keep custodians honest. We must find ways to legitimate the needed
authority of both the custodians and the corrective feedbacks.
Freedom to Breed Is Intolerable
The tragedy of the commons is involved in population problems in another
way. In a world governed solely by the principle of "dog eat dog"
—if indeed there ever was such a world—how many children a family had
would not be a matter of public concern. Parents who bred too exuberantly would
leave fewer descendants, not more, because they would be unable to care
adequately for their children. David Lack and others have found that such a
negative feedback demonstrably controls the fecundity of birds.  But men are not birds, and have not acted like them
for millenniums, at least.
If each human family were dependent only on its own resources;
if the children of improvident parents starved to death; if thus,
over breeding brought its own "punishment" to the germ line —
then there would be no public interest in controlling the breeding of
families. But our society is deeply committed to the welfare state,  and hence is confronted with another aspect of the
tragedy of the commons.
In a welfare state, how shall we deal with the family, the religion, the
race, or the class (or indeed any distinguishable and cohesive group) that
adopts over breeding as a policy to secure its own aggrandizement? 
To couple the concept of freedom to breed with the belief that everyone born
has an equal right to the commons is to lock the world into a tragic course of
Unfortunately this is just the course of action that is being pursued by the
United Nations. In late 1967, some thirty nations agreed to the following:
"The Universal Declaration of Human Rights describes the family as the
natural and fundamental unit of society. It follows that any choice and
decision with regard to the size of the family must irrevocably rest with the
family itself, and cannot be made by anyone else.'' 
It is painful to have to deny categorically the validity of this right;
denying it, one feels as uncomfortable as a resident of Salem, Massachusetts,
who denied the reality of witches in the seventeenth century. At the present
time, in liberal quarters, something like a taboo acts to inhibit criticism of
the United Nations. There is a feeling that the United Nations is "our
last and best hope," that we shouldn't find fault with it; we shouldn't
play into the hands of the archconservatives. However, let us not forget what
Robert Louis Stevenson said: "The truth that is suppressed by friends is
the readiest weapon of the enemy." If we love the truth we must openly
deny the validity of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, even though it
is promoted by the United Nations. We should also join with Kingsley Davis
 in attempting to get Planned Parenthood-World
Population to see the error of its ways in embracing the same tragic ideal.
Conscience Is Self-Eliminating
It is a mistake to think that we can control the breeding of mankind in the
long run by an appeal to conscience. Charles Galton Darwin made this point when
he spoke on the centennial of the publication of his grandfather's great book.
The argument is straightforward and Darwinian.
People vary. Confronted with appeals to limit breeding, some people will
undoubtedly respond to the plea more than others. Those who have more children
will produce a larger fraction of the next generation than those with more
susceptible consciences. The differences will be accentuated, generation by
In C. G. Darwin's words: "It may well be that it would take hundreds of
generations for the progenitive instinct to develop in this way, but if it
should do so, nature would have taken her revenge, and the variety Homo
contracipiens would become extinct and would be replaced by the variety
Homo progenitivus. 
The argument assumes that conscience or the desire for children (no matter
which) is hereditary-but hereditary only in the most general formal sense. The
result will be the same whether the attitude is transmitted through germ cells,
or exosomatically, to use A. J. Lotka's term. (If one denies the latter
possibility as well as the former, then what's the point of education?) The
argument has here been stated in the context of the population problem, but it
applies equally well to any instance in which society appeals to an individual
exploiting a commons to restrain himself for the general good — by means
of his conscience. To make such an appeal is to set up a selective system that
works toward the elimination of conscience from the race.
Pathogenic Effects of Conscience
The long-term disadvantage of an appeal to conscience should be enough to
condemn it; but it has serious short-term disadvantages as well. If we ask a
man who is exploiting a commons to desist "in the name of
conscience," what are we saying to him? What does he hear? — not only
at the moment but also in the wee small hours of the night when, half asleep,
he remembers not merely the words we used but also the nonverbal communication
cues we gave him unawares? Sooner or later, consciously or subconsciously, he
senses that he has received two communications, and that they are
contradictory: 1. (intended communication) "If you don't do as we ask, we
will openly condemn you for not acting like a responsible citizen"; 2.
(the unintended communication) "If you do behave as we ask, we will
secretly condemn you for a simpleton who can be shamed into standing aside
while the rest of us exploit the commons."
Every man then is caught in what Bateson has called a "double
bind." Bateson and his co-workers have made a plausible case for viewing
the double bind as an important causative factor in the genesis of
schizophrenia.  The double bind may not always
be so damaging, but it always endangers the mental health of anyone to whom it
is applied. "A bad conscience," said Nietzsche, "is a kind of
To conjure up a conscience in others is tempting to anyone who wishes to
extend his control beyond the legal limits. Leaders at the highest level
succumb to this temptation. Has any president during the past generation failed
to call on labor unions to moderate voluntarily their demands for higher wages,
or to steel companies to honor voluntary guidelines on prices? I can recall
none. The rhetoric used on such occasions is designed to produce feelings of
guilt in noncooperators.
For centuries it was assumed without proof that guilt was a valuable,
perhaps even an indispensable, ingredient of the civilized life. Now, in this
post-Freudian world, we doubt it.
Paul Goodman speaks from the modern point of view when he says: "No
good has ever come from feeling guilty, neither intelligence, policy, nor
compassion. The guilty do not pay attention to the object but only to
themselves, and not even to their own interests, which might make sense, but to
their anxieties.'' 
One does not have to be a professional psychiatrist to see the consequences
of anxiety. We in the Western world are just emerging from a dreadful two
centuries-long Dark Ages of Eros that was sustained partly by prohibition laws,
but perhaps more effectively by the anxiety-generating mechanisms of education.
Alex Comfort has told the story well in The Anxiety Makers; 
it is not a pretty one.
Since proof is difficult, we may even concede that the results of anxiety
may sometimes, from certain points of view, be desirable. The larger question
we should ask is whether, as a matter of policy, we should ever encourage the
use of a technique the tendency (if not the intention) of which is
psychologically pathogenic. We hear much talk these days of responsible
parenthood; the coupled words are incorporated into the titles of some
organizations devoted to birth control. Some people have proposed massive
propaganda campaigns to instill responsibility into the nation's (or the
world's) breeders. But what is the meaning of the word conscience? When we use
the word responsibility in the absence of substantial sanctions are we not
trying to browbeat a free man in a commons into acting against his own
interest? Responsibility is a verbal counterfeit for a substantial quid pro
quo. It is an attempt to get something for nothing.
If the word responsibility is to be used at all, I suggest that it be in the
sense Charles Frankel uses it. 
"Responsibility," says this philosopher, "is the product of
definite social arrangements." Notice that Frankel calls for social
arrangements — not propaganda.
Mutual Coercion Mutually Agreed Upon
The social arrangements that produce responsibility are arrangements that
create coercion, of some sort. Consider bank robbing. The man who takes money
from a bank acts as if the bank were a commons. How do we prevent such action?
Certainly not by trying to control his behavior solely by a verbal appeal to
his sense of responsibility. Rather than rely on propaganda we follow Frankel's
lead and insist that a bank is not a commons; we seek the definite social
arrangements that will keep it from becoming a commons. That we thereby
infringe on the freedom of would-be robbers we neither deny nor regret.
The morality of bank robbing is particularly easy to understand because we
accept complete prohibition of this activity. We are willing to say "Thou
shalt not rob banks," without providing for exceptions. But temperance
also can be created by coercion. Taxing is a good coercive device. To keep
downtown shoppers temperate in their use of parking space we introduce parking
meters for short periods, and traffic fines for longer ones. We need not
actually forbid a citizen to park as long as he wants to; we need merely make
it increasingly expensive for him to do so. Not prohibition, but carefully
biased options are what we offer him. A Madison Avenue man might call this
persuasion; I prefer the greater candor of the word coercion.
Coercion is a dirty word to most liberals now, but it need not forever be
so. As with the four-letter words, its dirtiness can be cleansed away by
exposure to the light, by saying it over and over without apology or
embarrassment. To many, the word coercion implies arbitrary decisions of
distant and irresponsible bureaucrats; but this is not a necessary part of its
meaning. The only kind of coercion I recommend is mutual coercion, mutually
agreed upon by the majority of the people affected.
To say that we mutually agree to coercion is not to say that we are required
to enjoy it, or even to pretend we enjoy it. Who enjoys taxes? We all grumble
about them. But we accept compulsory taxes because we recognize that voluntary
taxes would favor the conscienceless. We institute and (grumblingly) support
taxes and other coercive devices to escape the horror of the commons.
An alternative to the commons need not be perfectly just to be preferable.
With real estate and other material goods, the alternative we have chosen is
the institution of private property coupled with legal inheritance. Is this
system perfectly just? As a genetically trained biologist I deny that it is. It
seems to me that, if there are to be differences in individual inheritance,
legal possession should be perfectly correlated with biological
inheritance-that those who are biologically more fit to be the custodians of
property and power should legally inherit more. But genetic recombination
continually makes a mockery of the doctrine of "like father, like
son" implicit in our laws of legal inheritance. An idiot can inherit
millions, and a trust fund can keep his estate intact. We must admit that our
legal system of private property plus inheritance is unjust — but we put
up with it because we are not convinced, at the moment, that anyone has
invented a better system. The alternative of the commons is too horrifying to
contemplate. Injustice is preferable to total ruin.
It is one of the peculiarities of the warfare between reform and the status
quo that it is thoughtlessly governed by a double standard. Whenever a reform
measure is proposed it is often defeated when its opponents triumphantly
discover a flaw in it. As Kingsley Davis has pointed out,  worshipers of the status quo sometimes imply that no
reform is possible without unanimous agreement, an implication contrary to
historical fact. As nearly as I can make out, automatic rejection of proposed
reforms is based on one of two unconscious assumptions: (1) that the status quo
is perfect; or (2) that the choice we face is between reform and no action; if
the proposed reform is imperfect, we presumably should take no action at all,
while we wait for a perfect proposal.
But we can never do nothing. That which we have done for thousands of years
is also action. It also produces evils. Once we are aware that the status quo
is action, we can then compare its discoverable advantages and disadvantages
with the predicted advantages and disadvantages of the proposed reform,
discounting as best we can for our lack of experience. On the basis of such a
comparison, we can make a rational decision which will not involve the
unworkable assumption that only perfect systems are tolerable.
Recognition of Necessity
Perhaps the simplest summary of this analysis of man's population problems
is this: the commons, if justifiable at all, is justifiable only under
conditions of low-population density. As the human population has increased,
the commons has had to be abandoned in one aspect after another.
First we abandoned the commons in food gathering, enclosing farm land and
restricting pastures and hunting and fishing areas. These restrictions are
still not complete throughout the world.
Somewhat later we saw that the commons as a place for waste disposal would
also have to be abandoned. Restrictions on the disposal of domestic sewage are
widely accepted in the Western world; we are still struggling to close the
commons to pollution by automobiles, factories, insecticide sprayers,
fertilizing operations, and atomic energy installations.
In a still more embryonic state is our recognition of the evils of the
commons in matters of pleasure. There is almost no restriction on the
propagation of sound waves in the public medium. The shopping public is
assaulted with mindless music, without its consent. Our government has paid out
billions of dollars to create a supersonic transport which would disturb 50,000
people for every one person whisked from coast to coast 3 hours faster.
Advertisers muddy the airwaves of radio and television and pollute the view of
travelers. We are a long way from outlawing the commons in matters of pleasure.
Is this because our Puritan inheritance makes us view pleasure as something of
a sin, and pain (that is, the pollution of advertising) as the sign of virtue?
Every new enclosure of the commons involves the infringement of somebody's
personal liberty. Infringements made in the distant past are accepted because
no contemporary complains of a loss. It is the newly proposed infringements
that we vigorously oppose; cries of "rights" and "freedom"
fill the air. But what does "freedom" mean? When men mutually agreed
to pass laws against robbing, mankind became more free, not less so.
Individuals locked into the logic of the commons are free only to bring on
universal ruin; once they see the necessity of mutual coercion, they become
free to pursue other goals. I believe it was Hegel who said, "Freedom is
the recognition of necessity."
The most important aspect of necessity that we must now recognize, is the
necessity of abandoning the commons in breeding. No technical solution can
rescue us from the misery of overpopulation. Freedom to breed will bring ruin
to all. At the moment, to avoid hard decisions many of us are tempted to
propagandize for conscience and responsible parenthood. The temptation must be
resisted, because an appeal to independently acting consciences selects for the
disappearance of all conscience in the long run, and an increase in anxiety in
The only way we can preserve and nurture other and more precious freedoms is
by relinquishing the freedom to breed, and that very soon. "Freedom is the
recognition of necessity" — and it is the role of education to reveal
to all the necessity of abandoning the freedom to breed. Only so, can we put an
end to this aspect of the tragedy of the commons.
1. J. B. Wiesner and H. F. York, Scientific American
211 (No. 4), 27 (1964).
2. G. Hardin, Journal of Heredity 50, 68 (1959), S.
von Hoernor, Science 137, 18, (1962).
3. J. von Neumann and O. Morgenstern, Theory of Games
and Economic Behavior (Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J., 1947),
4. J. H. Fremlin, New Scientist, No. 415 (1964), p.
5. A. Smith, The Wealth of Nations (Modern Library,
New York, 1937), p. 423.
6. W. F. Lloyd, Two Lectures on the Checks to
Population (Oxford University Press, Oxford, England, 1833).
7. A. N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World
(Mentor, New York, 1948), p. 17.
8. G. Hardin, Ed., Population, Evolution, and Birth
Control (Freeman, San Francisco, 1964), p. 56.
9. S. McVay, Scientific American 216 (No. 8), 13
10. J. Fletcher, Situation Ethics (Westminster,
11. D. Lack, The Natural Regulation of Animal
Numbers (Clarendon Press, Oxford, England, 1954).
12. H. Girvetz, From Wealth to Welfare (Stanford
University Press, Stanford, Calif, 1950).
13. G. Hardin, Perspectives in Biology and Medicine
6, 366 (1963).
14. U Thant, International Planned Parenthood News,
No. 168 (February 1968), p. 3.
15. K. Davis, Science 158, 730 (1967).
16. S. Tax, Ed., Evolution After Darwin (University
of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1960), vol. 2, p. 469.
17. G. Bateson, D. D. Jackson, J. Haley, J. Weakland,
Behavioral Science 1, 251 (1956).
18. P. Goodman, New York Review of Books 10 (8), 22
(23 May 1968).
19. A. Comfort, The Anxiety Makers (Nelson, London,
20. C. Frankel, The Case for Modern Man (Harper
& Row, New York, 1955), p. 203.
21. J. D. Roslansky, Genetics and the Future of Man
(Appleton-Century-Crofts, New York, 1966), p. 177.
THE TRAGEDY OF THE COMMON REVISITED
by Beryl Crowe (1969)
reprinted in MANAGING THE COMMONS
by Garrett Hardin and John Baden
W.H. Freeman, 1977; ISBN 0-7167-0476-5
"There has developed in the contemporary natural sciences a recognition
that there is a subset of problems, such as population, atomic war, and
environmental corruption, for which there are no technical solutions.
"There is also an increasing recognition among contemporary social
scientists that there is a subset of problems, such as population, atomic war,
environmental corruption, and the recovery of a livable urban environment, for
which there are no current political solutions. The thesis of this article is
that the common area shared by these two subsets contains most of the critical
problems that threaten the very existence of contemporary man." [p. 53]
ASSUMPTIONS NECESSARY TO AVOID THE TRAGEDY
"In passing the technically insoluble problems over to the political
and social realm for solution, Hardin made three critical assumptions:
(1) that there exists, or can be developed, a 'criterion of judgment and
system of weighting . . .' that will 'render the incommensurables . . .
commensurable . . . ' in real life;
(2) that, possessing this criterion of judgment, 'coercion can be mutually
agreed upon,' and that the application of coercion to effect a solution to
problems will be effective in modern society; and
(3) that the administrative system, supported by the criterion of judgment
and access to coercion, can and will protect the commons from further
desecration." [p. 55]
ERODING MYTH OF THE COMMON VALUE SYSTEM
"In America there existed, until very recently, a set of conditions
which perhaps made the solution to Hardin's subset possible; we lived with the
myth that we were 'one people, indivisible. . . .' This myth postulated that we
were the great 'melting pot' of the world wherein the diverse cultural ores of
Europe were poured into the crucible of the frontier experience to produce a
new alloy — an American civilization. This new civilization was presumably
united by a common value system that was democratic, equalitarian, and existing
under universally enforceable rules contained in the Constitution and the Bill
"In the United States today, however, there is emerging a new set of
behavior patterns which suggest that the myth is either dead or dying. Instead
of believing and behaving in accordance with the myth, large sectors of the
population are developing life-styles and value hierarchies that give
contemporary Americans an appearance more closely analogous to the
particularistic, primitive forms of 'tribal' organizations in geographic
proximity than to that shining new alloy, the American civilization." [p.
"Looking at a more recent analysis of the sickness of the core city,
Wallace F. Smith has argued that the productive model of the city is no longer
viable for the purposes of economic analysis. Instead, he develops a model of
the city as a site for leisure consumption, and then seems to suggest that the
nature of this model is such is such that the city cannot regain its health
because the leisure demands are value-based and, hence do not admit to
compromise and accommodation; consequently there is no way of deciding among
these value- oriented demands that are being made on the core city.
"In looking for the cause of the erosion of the myth of a common value
system, it seems to me that so long as our perceptions and knowledge of other
groups were formed largely through the written media of communication, the
American myth that we were a giant melting pot of equalitarians could be
sustained. In such a perceptual field it is tenable, if not obvious, that men
are motivated by interests. Interests can always be compromised and
accommodated without undermining our very being by sacrificing values. Under
the impact of electronic media, however, this psychological distance has broken
down and now we discover that these people with whom we could formerly
compromise on interests are not, after all, really motivated by interests but
by values. Their behavior in our very living room betrays a set of values,
moreover, that are incompatible with our own, and consequently the compromises
that we make are not those of contract but of culture. While the former are
acceptable, any form of compromise on the latter is not a form of rational
behavior but is rather a clear case of either apostasy or heresy. Thus we have
arrived not at an age of accommodation but one of confrontation. In such an age
'incommensurables' remain 'incommensurable' in real life." [p. 59]
EROSION OF THE MYTH OF THE MONOPOLY OF COERCIVE FORCE
"In the past, those who no longer subscribed to the values of the
dominant culture were held in check by the myth that the state possessed a
monopoly on coercive force. This myth has undergone continual erosion since the
end of World War II owing to the success of the strategy of guerrilla warfare,
as first revealed to the French in Indochina, and later conclusively
demonstrated in Algeria. Suffering as we do from what Senator Fulbright has
called 'the arrogance of power,' we have been extremely slow to learn the
lesson in Vietnam, although we now realize that war is political and cannot be
won by military means. It is apparent that the myth of the monopoly of coercive
force as it was first qualified in the civil rights conflict in the South, then
in our urban ghettos, next on the streets of Chicago, and now on our college
campuses has lost its hold over the minds of Americans. The technology of
guerrilla warfare has made it evident that, while the state can win battles, it
cannot win wars of values. Coercive force which is centered in the modern state
cannot be sustained in the face of the active resistance of some 10 percent of
the population unless the state is willing to embark on a deliberate policy of
genocide directed against the value dissident groups. The factor that sustained
the myth of coercive force in the past was the acceptance of a common value
system. Whether the latter exists is questionable in the modern
nation-state." [p.p. 59-60]
EROSION OF THE MYTH OF ADMINISTRATORS OF THE COMMONS
"Indeed, the process has been so widely commented upon that one writer
postulated a common life cycle for all of the attempts to develop regulatory
policies. The life cycle is launched by an outcry so widespread and demanding
that it generates enough political force to bring about establishment of a
regulatory agency to insure the equitable, just, and rational distribution of
the advantages among all holders of interest in the commons. This phase is
followed by the symbolic reassurance of the offended as the agency goes into
operation, developing a period of political quiescence among the great majority
of those who hold a general but unorganized interest in the commons. Once this
political quiescence has developed, the highly organized and specifically
interested groups who wish to make incursions into the commons bring sufficient
pressure to bear through other political processes to convert the agency to the
protection and furthering of their interests. In the last phase even staffing
of the regulating agency is accomplished by drawing the agency administrators
from the ranks of the regulated." [p.p. 60-61]
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