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Tragedy of the Commons

Kiwispeak... Public Choice Television...

While I was at GMU, Gordon Tullock was working on a book he intended to call "Open Secrets" -- things that most people don't know but ought to. Levy and Peart's re-discovery of the origins of the term Dismal Science would fall into that kind of category. We all knew something that wasn't so for an awfully long time.

In prepping to teach the tragedy of the commons a little while back, I actually went to re-read Hardin's 1968 Science article. Hardin coined the term; students plagiarising shamelessly from Wikipedia would always cite him in their answers. So I thought it worthwhile to look into it. Here is some of what I found.

Freedom To Breed Is Intolerable

If each human family were dependent only on its own resources; if the children of improvident parents starved to death; if, thus, overbreeding 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 overbreeding as a policy to secure its own aggrandizement?


The only way we can preserve and nurture other and more precious freedoms is by relinquishing the freedom to breed, and that very soon.

Hardin's argument essentially runs as follows. There's limited space on the planet; available space and resources are a commons given the welfare state. Appeals to conscience as a preventative check on population growth will have dysgenic effects; instead, government regulations on breeding must instead be applied.

We usually look to intervene at the source of the externality. Here, Hardin identifies the welfare state as the source of the problem, then advocates for widespread restrictions on procreation. Wouldn't welfare reform make more sense? For those even mildly sceptical about government benevolence, handing over control of procreation to the state seems about the worst possible policy.

The insinuations about what should be done with races that overbreed are highly disturbing.

I'll take Julian Simon over Garrett Hardin any day of the week.

Comments and Sharing

CATEGORIES: Economic History

COMMENTS (6 to date)
Omer K writes:

Handing over as precious and basic a freedom as reproductive rights to a bureacratic nightmare like the government is indeed inadvisable.

But you dont give an alternative. The devil, as always, is in the details. By "welfare reform" what do you mean? Milton Friedman's and Charles Murray's Negative Income Tax?

That would indeed would lower the rewards for having too many babies that one cannot support on one's own. Though I still greatly prefer the near complete repeal of the welfare state. Why support bums at all?

IF one is not a bum, excepting very very few unfortunate souls (perhaps caused by accidents) the private market could take over what welfare currently does through somekind of sale of insurance policies.

Tom West writes:

Wouldn't welfare reform make more sense?

Unless "Wefare reform" = "allowing children to die", that would not be a solution to Hardin's "dilemma". By definition, nothing except mass death is going to stop a people who are determined to outbreed everyone else.

Luckily, it doesn't actually appear that there are any such people, so arguing about Hardin's entire concern is a waste of electrons. (Agreed that there are a number of governments who wouldn't mind pursuing that strategy, but any time a people are given a choice, they shrink their family size down...)

Omer K writes:

Luckily, it doesn't actually appear that there are any such people, so arguing about Hardin's entire concern is a waste of electrons. (Agreed that there are a number of governments who wouldn't mind pursuing that strategy, but any time a people are given a choice, they shrink their family size down...)


No, even shrinking family size down only postponds the inevitable. If different races have different sexual setpoints, a minority can outbreed to become a majority.

Even with an overall lowering of birthrates the differential is what counts. It hardly matters in the long run if Superbreeder group A reduces its fertility from 4 children a woman to 2 children, if LowerBreeder Group B goes from 2 to 1.

In addition some groups will have their children at a younger age which in itself causes massive differential birthrates over time. For eg, two different groups, BOTH have 3 children a lifetime/cycle. But group A has its mean births/lifetime at age 20, while group B at 30.
Even though both groups had 2 children per cycle in 60 years we have 16.25 members for Group A, and only 9.5 for Group B.

If we use a roughly replacement level fertility of 2 children a cycle, the argument still stands, with 8 kids for Group A and 6 Kids for Group B.

Quote of Garrett's:

If we renounce conquest and overbreeding, our survival in a competitive world depends on what kind of world it is: One World, or a world of national territories. If the world is one great commons, in which all food is shared equally, then we are lost. Those who breed faster will replace the rest. Sharing the food from national territories is operationally equivalent to sharing territory; in both cases a commons is established, and tragedy is the ultimate result.

And another

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 action.

To say his points arent valid is pure folly. Julian Simon may well have won out over Malthus, but only due to Malthus being unable to forsee technology. In essence technology caused a surfeit of resources. However different groups breeding within a national border is more of a Zero-Sum game. Here, welfare surely acts as a commons. And tragedy will follow, in one form or another, inevitably.

Rajan R writes:

The Chinese ceded their rights to their government, and now the Chinese are facing two critical problems: a rapidly aging population in an developing country as well as increasingly severe gender demographic imbalances.

The truth is that very, very few parents would be willing to see their children starve to death (and if they are, that itself should be criminal). Currently, there is an immensely long line to wait to adopt a child, perhaps with the end of the welfare state, mothers who can't otherwise provide for their child/ren, would give them up for adoption.

However, a shrinking population isn't a logical goal - the aggregate demand and supply of an economy suffers, hurting the wellbeing of those still living. Even more so, the excuse given is a pretty stupid one - small earth, too little resources, too much people.

In that case, densely-populated Netherlands should be starving, not exporting agriculture goods.

Running with the Dutch example, if the rest of earth should replicate the Netherlands, there should be space for another 53 billion people. Resources may be finite, but human ingenuity in increasing its productivity, adding to it and finding alternatives should count for something.

Tom West writes:

Maybe I wasn't clear enough.

Hardin was talking specifically about specific populations that *deliberately* have more children (in order to gain influence) than they can afford to feed, forcing the rest of us to bear the cost of their increasing numbers.

This isn't happening. There's no group that is even successfully encouraging higher birthrates for political ends on a national level.

Of course different groups have different fertility rates, but that's not Hardin's point. As long as you can support your children, you have an *absolute* right to have them. As resources become more constrained because of population, the cost of support naturally rises. Again, as long as you can support your (now more expensive) children, you have an *absolute* right to have them.

If certain subsegments of the population choose to have more children and they can support them, that is certainly their right and of course it will have long term implications. However, note that the outcome was also willingly chosen by the side that chose to have fewer children.

If you want your group to be rich, then work. If you want your group to be more numerous, then breed. In both cases it's not the responsibility of other groups to work less or breed fewer.

And to be honest, at least in the Canadian experience, I've never seen a third or fourth generation Canadian who was anything but simply Canadian. The best way to make certain your culture dominates is to simply absorb, not outbreed.

Didn't Garrett Hardin have four children?

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