The Tragedy of the Commons and the Economic Man

Steve sent me this nice retake by Massimo de Angelis on the tragedy of the commons by Hardin (1968).

Hardin (1968) argues that in the ‘commons’ society, man lives by this principle: to each according to his needs.

Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit – in a world that is limited. Ruin 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.’

The author argues that the assumption in this believable tragedy is the economic man:

[who is] casted in a rationality and measuring process that is uniquely the type of subject portrayed by capital.

This reminds me of a keynote presentation I was working on together with one of my supervisors, Don Schauder. It was on the use of storytelling in community museums; and we then embarked on a big question: What makes a good society? What are the roles of the community, and individuals in such a society? Maslow’s hierarchy of needs asserts that the activities of man start with its base level of physiological and safety needs, before progressing on to needs for love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualisation. Richard Florida somewhat counters this argument by proposing that the good community starts with the cappucino: diversity is essential to stimulate creativity, generating innovations, increasing wealth and economic growth.

The community ensures economic growth that is sustainable – and examples of communities thriving in the commons are many. I leave you with this quote by Thomas Princen, from his book The logic of sufficiency (c.f. Massimo de Angelis’ blog post). In hindsight one might add that ‘therein lies the tragedy without the commons’:

‘On Marajo Island, a large chinck of land in the mouth of the Amazon River, ranchers graze beef cattle on native grasses, getting respectable but not great yealds of meat. Nearby, on the mainland, ranchers use modern methods of feeding to produce superior quantities of beef. The land and water in the mainland ranches are degrading, though, making uncertain whether their practices can continue. Meanwhile, the Marajo ranchers are expected to continue their relatively low-yield practices for a long time to come. After all, they’ve been doing it for some 400 years. Sustainable practices again, it would seem.’

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