Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Pleasures of Reading Garrett Hardin

I'm in the last throes of finishing the ms. and looking over Garrett Hardin's famous "Tragedy of the Commons" Science 162 (1968), pp. 1243-48, which I hadn't read carefully since I was an undergraduate. It's a much more compassionate and thoughtful piece than its invocation by neo-classical economists would suggest. Used as a citation to justify property rights of all sorts, Hardin is himself not persuaded of their utility in many contexts. In fact, the essay would be more aptly titled, "The Tragedy of the Commons for People with Property Rights."

Property rights do not create solutions, but Hardin describes how they contribute to the tragedy of the commons. His paradigmatic example is grazing. But grazing only poses a problem if land is held in common while individuals have private rights to their herd. (If herds also are held in common then neo-classical economists worry about laziness, which would be bad for productivity but would not lead to overgrazing.) Similarly, Hardin's solutions do not require more property rights and market solutions but appeal to an inventive use of regulations.

For instance, noting the degradation of the national parks, he suggests entrance policies based on a lottery, a proposal now in place. And he writes: "[O]ur 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" (1245).

And Hardin in 1968 was one of the first to point out the inability of property rights to handle pollution of what he calls pleasure. As a result of property rights to a store, "The shopping public is assaulted with mindless music, without its consent. Our government is paying out billions of dollars to create supersonic transport which will disturb 50,000 people for every one person who is whisked from coast to coast 3 hours faster. Advertisers muddy the airwaves of radio and television and pollute the view of travelers" (1248).

Hardin also writes with some sadness that each generation is in the habit of forgetting lessons of previous generations. It is indeed a sign of the times that Hardin's lessons on the dangers of overpopulation and the commons, which have not proven the problem he thought they would be, would be the ones for which he is remembered, while his more astute observations about the harms of property rights have been ignored, though not by the folks at anti-advertising, whose bus stop intervention appears above.

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