Academic journal article Brigham Young University Law Review

A Good That Transcends: Culture Change and Our Common Home

Academic journal article Brigham Young University Law Review

A Good That Transcends: Culture Change and Our Common Home

Article excerpt

Since its appearance in 1968, Garret Hardin's short article in Science, "The Tragedy of the Commons," has become an especially handy source for scholars to cite in support of an array of claims about nature and why we misuse it.1 In his article, Hardin drew attention to the rising human population and offered an explanation why, absent intervention, it would keep rising, well beyond the planet's carrying capacity and even when it brought suffering and degradation.2 To illustrate his explanatory theory Hardin included a tale about a grazing pasture that suffered tragic decline because of overuse.3 It was this short, fictional narrative that drew great interest and turned Hardin's article into a classic.

In Hardin's story, individual cattle grazers were free to use the pasture as they liked. They could add more livestock at any time, and do so even when the extra animals caused overgrazing and degradation. An individual grazer had an incentive to act this way, to add an extra head, because the forage eaten by the animal benefited the grazer. The additional animal brought net harm due to the overgrazing, particularly as other grazers followed suit. But that harm was spread among all grazers while the benefits of the extra animal went to the owner alone. Each grazer thus had an incentive to act in ways that brought tragic consequences to the landscape and its users. For the "rational" grazer, Hardin contended, adding more animals was "the only sensible course."4 And it was individual freedom that made it all possible. As Hardin famously contended, "[r]uin 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."5

Hardin described his grazing region as a commons, and it was, in the sense that many people shared its use.6 More precisely the region was an open-access commons in that no norms or rules limited the ability of any grazer to graze more animals at will.7 The outcome of this freedom, Hardin asserted, was tragic in that it led inexorably to misuse of the pasture and harm to the grazers themselves. Hardin did not pause to define good pasture use; he did not, that is, explain how he would distinguish between the legitimate use of a grazing region and the misuse of it. His was a simple tale, with no need to get specific. At some point, overgrazing reduced the region's forage productivity, an outcome he deemed bad.

Hardin's conclusion was that this kind of selfish freedom needed to disappear. In some way lawmakers needed to limit it through coercive means. As a democrat, Hardin believed that binding limits should be "mutually agreed upon by the majority of the people affected," not imposed by autocrats.8 He thus phrased his solution as mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon. Coercion could take the form of something like governmental regulation. It could also come, in the case of the grazing tragedy, through the division of the pasture into privately owned shares.9 If the latter was done, the ill effects of overgrazing by any individual grazer would be felt by the grazer alone, not shared by others, thus aligning the costs and benefits of overgrazing and leading, presumably, to less or no overuse. Hardin presented these remedial options as variations on the theme of mutual coercion, but many readers would treat them as more distinct-a public ownership-regulatory option and a private-property option.10

Over the years Hardin's tale has become something of a Rorschach test, akin to the personality test developed by Swiss psychologist Hermann Rorschach in which patients are shown inkblots and asked to describe what they see. In much the same way, readers of Hardin's tale can come away with widely varied interpretations. What seems important in this story? What truths are displayed? And what omissions or errors might be embedded in it and in Hardin's explanation?

The possible answers to these questions are many, and very likely turn mostly on traits that a reader brings to the narrative. …

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