Solarfire. It is part one of a four-part series leading up to a wider exploration of Communities that Abide, based on the example of certain small nations which, much to the chagrin of neoliberal economists, have preserved a large and productive commons.]
Later on Hardin said that perhaps he should have called it “The Tragedy of the Unregulated Commons,” because in his article he presented another concept—that of negative commons, now better known as externalities, of which air and water pollution are prime examples. Since the Earth's atmosphere and the oceans are rather difficult to privatize, this poses a general moral challenge to society. If everyone concerns themselves only with their own interests (taking while the taking is good, not expending effort on collective efforts since they are a waste of one's precious time, and so on) one cannot avoid the tragedy of the commons. Nor can one avoid maximizing one's externalities (pollute as much as you can, if that lowers your costs and boosts your profits) because that would only serve to help one's competitors. So the only solution is, of course, regulation: put limits on what people can do with their private property (e.g., wetlands conservation) and to what they can do to that which cannot be privatized (e.g., carbon tax on CO2 emissions). Good luck with all that, but this essay isn't about a policy debate. This essay is about two things: why the concept of the tragedy of the commons, as used by neoliberal economists and bureaucrats, is in fact based on a heap of fallacious arguments, and how that heap of fallacious arguments is being used as a propaganda tool to justify privatizing the commons.
Propaganda is not concerned with subtleties of argument. It is a blunt instrument used to persuade those who wish to be persuaded without having to think critically. (Reading this will, one should hope, render you immune to its charms as far as the tragedy of the commons is concerned.) Propagandists seek to create or hijack references to concepts that they wish to push while demonizing all alternative concepts by name-calling and subterfuge. In this case, the alternatives to what the tragedy of the commons is meant to imply are all labeled as bad ideas, failed experiments, atavistic remnants of bygone eras and so on. These are: collectivism, socialism, resource nationalism, anarchy, communism and heavy-handed government regulation. All bad, bad words to utter for any good, self-serving neoliberal bureaucrat.
When a free-market propagandist uses the term “tragedy of the commons,” we should feel free to substitute “justification for privatization,” and when an ecologist references “tragedy of the commons” to describe the current climate negotiations, the propagandist again presents this as “justification for privatization.” In other words, if there's a problem with the commons, such as it being portrayed as a tragedy, then clearly the solution is to privatize it, creating an anti-commons.
The argument is an example of the fallacy of the excluded middle: an assumed problem with one thing being used to justify some specific preferred alternative rather than a lack of that very thing. In this case, private property, which is not the opposite of property held in common, is being singled out as the only alternative, whereas the stunningly obvious direct opposite to a resource held, and used, in common is a resource not held, or used, at all, by anyone. This is so stunningly obvious a thought that it may be hard to grasp at first, and so it bears repeating: the opposite of a resource the public can use (and/or own), is a resource that the public cannot use (or own), jointly or individually. That is the case that is being excluded. The reason for its exclusion is stunningly obvious too: if nobody is allowed to shoot panda bears, then how the hell are you supposed to get rich selling those cute black-and-white panda bear rugs to put in front of the fireplace?
But the only alternative to public ownership is private ownership, and this is what we hear repeated over and over again. This is a technique used in propaganda and advertising called proof by repetition. In due course, the public mind becomes accustomed to equating privatization with good stewardship of the environment and sound economic policy. If actual results turn out to be in violent disagreement with this view, then repeat the message some more. So, to help rectify the situation, this essay strives to present a coherent interpretation of an alternative, and also to give the fake that is being passed off to us a catchy new name: the travesty of the anti-commons.