“For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”

Richard Feynman


Tragedy Of The Commons Re-Stated

A “commons” is any resource used as though it belongs to all. In other words, when anyone can use a shared resource simply because one wants or needs to use it, then one is using a commons. For example, all land is part of our commons because it is a component of our life support and social systems.

A commons is destroyed by uncontrolled useneither intent of the user, nor ownership are important. An example of uncontrolled use is when one can use land (part of our commons) any way one wants.

Tragedy of the Commons Re-stated

by Jay Hanson — 06/14/97

“To the free man, the country is a collection of individuals who compose it … He recognizes no national goal except as it is the consensus of the goals that the citizens severally serve. He recognizes no national purpose except as it is the consensus of the purposes for which the citizens severally strive.”

“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.'”

As the 21st century races towards us like a huge wave on the horizon, we fear that we are not going to be able to ride this one out, that global currents will pull us to the bottom and tear us apart. We look to our political leadership and see that it has been corrupted by freedom—everything is for sale—and all political decisions are reduced to economic ones. In other words, we have no political system—no means to save ourselves—only an economic system (one-dollar-one-vote).

In 1944, 29 reindeer were moved to St. Matthew Island. The reindeer thrived by “exploiting” (making the best use of) their rich “commons”.

The island had no natural predators to keep the reindeer population in check, so the population swelled to 6,000 animals during the next 19 years. Suddenly the commons was depleted and the population crashed until only 42 animals remained alive! The reindeer could have avoided the crash by keeping the population within the carrying capacity of the island, but reindeer politics couldn’t manage it, so naturally the population crashed.

In his 1968 classic, “Tragedy of the Commons”, Garrett Hardin illustrates why the reindeer crashed and why communities everywhere are headed for tragedy—it’s because freedom in the commons brings ruin to all:

Visualize a pasture as a system that is open to everyone. The carrying capacity of this pasture is 10 animals. Ten herdsmen are each grazing an animal to fatten up for market. In other words, the 10 animals are now consuming all the grass that the pasture can produce.

Harry (one of the herdsmen) will add one more animal to the pasture if he can make a profit. He subtracts the original cost of the new animal from the expected sales price of the fattened animal and then considers the cost of the food. Adding one more animal will mean less food for each of the present animals, but since Harry only has only 1/10 of the herd, he has to pay only 1/10 of the cost. Harry decides to exploit the commons and the other herdsmen, so he adds an animal and takes a profit.

Shrinking profit margins force the other herdsmen either to go out of business or continue the exploitation by adding more animals. This process of mutual exploitation continues until overgrazing and erosion destroy the pasture system, and all the herdsmen are driven out of business.

Most importantly, Hardin illustrates the critical flaw of freedom in the commons: all participants must agree to conserve the commons, but any one can force the destruction of the commons. Although Hardin describes exploitation by humans in an unregulated public pasture, his commons and “grass” principle fit our entire society.

Private property is inextricably part of our commons because it is part of our life support and social systems. Owners alter the emergent properties of our life support and social systems when they alter their land to “make a profit”—cover land with corn or concrete.

Neighborhoods, cities and states are commons in the sense that no one is denied entry. Anyone may enter and lay claim to the common resources. One can compare profits to Hardin’s “grass” when any number of corporations—from anywhere in the world—drive down profits by competing with local businesses for customers.

One can see wages as Hardin’s “grass” when any number of workers—from anywhere in the world—can enter our community and drive down wages by competing with local workers for jobs. People themselves even become commons when they are exploited (are made the best use of) by other people and corporations. Everywhere one looks, one sees the Tragedy of the Commons. There is no technological solution to the problem of the commons, but governments can act to limit access to the commons, at which time they are no longer commons.

In the private-money based political system we have in America, everything (including people) becomes the commons because money is political power, and all political decisions are reduced to economic ones. In other words, we have no political system, only an economic system—everything is for sale. Thus, America is one big commons that will be exploited until it is destroyed. Like the reindeer population on St. Matthew Island, our population will crash too.

Will the coming global currents will pull us to the bottom and tear us apart? Our only chance to avoid it is to invent a political system that money can’t buy—and then limit freedom in the commons. If we can’t, we’re dead.


By Jay Hanson (8/1/97)

“The aim of every political constitution is, or ought to be, first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust.”
James Madison, FEDERALIST #57 (1787)

“I see the White House is like a subwayyou have to put in coins to open the gates.”
Johnny Chung (1997)

Systems that select for failure are often called Greshamite systems after the English financier Sir Thomas Gresham (1519?-1579). His name was given to Gresham’s Law, the economic principle that “bad money drives out good. ” When depreciated, mutilated, or debased (bad) money circulates concurrently with money of high value (e.g., silver or gold), the good money disappears because of hoarding. As more and more people notice that good money is being hoarded, more and more good money is hoarded—runaway positive feedback. Ultimately, the monetary system fails.

American Democracy can also be seen as a Greshamite system. To understand why, first consider the theoretical premise of our political system: a government that is willing to act for the Common Good. Next, consider two very different candidates for public office. Ms. Honesty believes in the principle embodied in our Pledge of Allegiance “… liberty and justice for all.” If Honesty is elected, she will treat everyone fairly and pursue the Common Good.

Mr. Corruption is a good capitalist who is motivated to pursue his own private gain. He has studied the system carefully and knows that he can gain political power by rewarding his friends and punishing his enemies.

Which of these candidates has the advantage? Obviously, Corruption has the advantage! Here’s why:

Mr. Jones is a local developer who has money, employees and influence. Philosophically, he is an average, self-interested individual who was trained by television (and to some extent by his family and formal education) to consume as much as he can. In fact, Jones can’t even remember ever hearing about public goods.

Will Mr. Jones contribute to Ms. Honesty? No, why should he? If she wins, Jones will receive justice and fairness from her anyway (a public good). If she loses, Jones will be punished by Mr. Corruption for helping her.

Will Mr. Jones contribute to Mr. Corruption? Yes, because Jones has been promised a change of zoning (a private good) so he can build his new gated community. Jones writes a check for $2,000 to Mr. Corruption and has a few dozen employees volunteer to help out on Corruption’s campaign.

American Democracy tends to elect politicians who are motivated to maximize their own private gain (there are some rare exceptions). Runaway positive feedback occurs as politicians need more and more money to run for public office. As this process continues, more and more politicians are corrupt.

Bad drives out good and Corruption drives out Honesty. To what end? In the end, we do not even have a political system (one-person-one-vote), only an economic system (one-dollar-one-vote).

“Public goods” are goods and services that can be shared by a whole group of people. Some examples of public goods are national defense, police protection, government, and environmental services. As a rule, government must provide public goods for two reasons:

1. Private investors won’t supply public goods because they can’t make a profit on them.

2. Voluntary efforts won’t supply public goods because the voluntary contribution of any one person exceeds the services received by that person. For example, suppose the cost of national defense to each taxpayer is worth the services each taxpayer receives. But if the entire cost were spread out evenly among only those who will voluntarily pay, then the individual cost will exceed the individual services. Thus, only government can supply a national defense through its taxing powers.

This same principle applies to voluntary efforts at cleaning roads, parks, and so on. Voluntary efforts will ultimately fail because those who don’t contribute (called “free riders”) can use the services anyway. So there is little incentive for volunteers to contribute over the long term. Ultimately, volunteers will “burn out”.

[ Civic-minded citizens can even be seen as a form of corporate welfare! Instead of corporations paying for their social and environmental destruction, civic-minded volunteers donate their own time and money to keep their communities together while CEOs give themselves million-dollar bonuses! ]

“Private goods” are restricted goods. A couple of examples of private goods are gated communities and toll roads (only those who pay can enjoy the services).

America’s political system is based on private money: whoever can raise the most money usually wins. Our private-money political system naturally exhibits a strong bias towards private goods—and private profits. This bias towards private goods leads to less public infrastructure and more private infrastructure (e.g., private police, gated communities, etc.). Unfortunately, this leads to a two class society: one with private infrastructure and one with no infrastructure; and ultimately, these will lead to the disintegration of the state.


by Beryl Crowe (1969)
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]


“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]


“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 of Rights.

“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. 56]

“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]


“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]


“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].

Donor Reportedly Contradicts White House

WASHINGTON (Reuter) – Contradicting accounts by the Clinton administration, one of the Democratic Party’s biggest campaign donors says he gave a $50,000 check to the first lady’s chief of staff on White House grounds in 1995 in direct response to solicitations by Hillary Rodham Clinton’s aides, the Los Angeles Times reported in Sunday’s editions.

Southern California entrepreneur Johnny Chung said he was seeking special treatment for a delegation of visiting Chinese businessmen when he was asked to help the first lady defray the cost of White House Christmas receptions billed to the Democratic National Committee.

Chung told the Times in interviews that he realised such special treatment hinged on his willingness to make a political contribution.

“I see the White House is like a subway—you have to put in coins to open the gates,” he said.

Chung, a Taiwan-born businessman, contributed $366,000 to the Democratic Party between mid-1994 and last November’s election.

He has denied Republican allegations that he may have funnelled Chinese government money to the DNC, but has refused to cooperate with campaign fund-raising investigators unless granted immunity from prosecution.

Margaret Williams, the first lady’s former chief of staff who has acknowledged accepting Chung’s check, is the subject of a pending inquiry by the agency charged with enforcing the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from soliciting contributions, as well as by congressional panels probing campaign finance abuses.

White House communications director Ann Lewis disputed Chung’s account, telling the Times, “At no time did they (the first lady’s aides) solicit a contribution from Mr. Chung.”

Lewis also denied the check had anything to do with White House perquisites extended Chung and the Chinese delegation.

She said the first lady’s aides may have gotten Chung and his guests into lunch at the White House mess and arranged a photo with Hillary Clinton, but that any such efforts on his behalf were “a courtesy we could do and have done for friends.”

Chung’s version of events, his first public comments on the episode, challenged the administration’s insistence that Williams played “a completely passive” role in relaying an unsolicited check for $50,000 to the DNC, the Times said.

Reut07:37 07-27-97

(27 Jul 1997 07:37 EDT)

Animal lovers and professional biologists should be able to agree on the ultimate goal of game management: to minimize the aggregate suffering of animals. They differ in their time horizons and in the focus of their immediate attention. Biologists insist that time has no stop and that we should seek to maximize the wellbeing of the herd over an indefinite period of time. To do that we must “read the landscape,” looking for signs of overexploitation of the environment by a population that has grown beyond the carrying capacity.

By contrast, the typical animal lover ignores the landscape while focusing on individual animals. To assert preemptive animal rights amounts to asserting the sanctity of animal life, meaning each and every individual life. Were an ecologist to use a similar rhetoric he would speak of the “sanctity of carrying capacity.” By this he would mean that we must consider the needs not only of the animals in front of us today but also of unborn descendants reaching into the indefinite future.

Time has no stop, the world is finite, biological reproduction is necessarily exponential: for these combined reasons the sanctity strategy as pursued by animal lovers in the long run saves fewer lives, and these at a more miserable level of existence, than does the capacity strategy pursued by ecologically knowledgeable biologists.

—Garrett Hardin