Socialism as the tragedy of the commons

Way back in 1972, I interviewed Garrett Hardin about his famous essay.  Although he didn't know me, I still had an inside track on meeting with him since I had recently graduated from the college where he taught: U.C. Santa Barbara.  I was also one of two associate editors of Environmental Quality Magazine.

The point of the essay is that our atmosphere and the oceans are in peril since they are analogous to the medieval commons — a shared pasture that was used by the local farmers.  The historic tragedy had to do with the over-grazing of the pasture.  Those farmers who over-utilized the commons usually profited by so doing, while their neighbors wound up being disadvantaged.

Hardin's message was that, since no one owned either the atmosphere or the oceans, abuse of such could be initially profitable to those who would do that, without any immediate consequences.  But everybody is ultimately doomed to suffer in a polluted mess.  This marked the dawning of the modern "green" movement.

At the conclusion of the interview, Dr. Hardin told me that he was just coming out with a new book, The Voyage of the Space Ship Beagle, a reference to the famous voyage taken by a young Charles Darwin over a century earlier.  He sent me a copy.  The spaceship was an analogue for our Planet Earth.  The underlying message was that, on the space ship Beagle, there was no outside source for, energy, room to live.  Thus was born the mantra of sustainability.

Time passed.  Years later, I realized another meaning of the tragedy of the commons, most likely not intended by Dr. Hardin.  Socialism relies on shared resources.  Ownership is anathema.  This could be an easy way to explain why socialism never works: it encourages despoliation.

I would look to Venezuela as a modern example of institutionalized failure.  A particularly resource-rich nation was plunged into poverty by a gang of political thugs.  Although socialism causes economic ruin, the politically well connected are likely to profit immensely.  Of course, there are those who truly believe in the communitarian virtues implied in socialism, which is why they've earned the title "useful idiots."

Ironically, environmentalism and leftist progressivism are typically merged into the "green" movement.  Hence the use of the watermelon analogy: green on the outside and red on the inside.

Politics is not always elegant.  Wildlife conservation was initiated by hunters, who witnessed the decline of essential habitat, not by vegetarians.  There is a serious semantic connection between conservation and conservatism.  If given the opportunity, socialists would devastate the landscape, doling out forty acres and a mule to anybody who asked.

Lurking within this discussion is the American reverence for property.  Along with life and liberty, our right to possess that which is ours is paramount.  Socialists have problems with that, and, hence, the USA lagged way behind old Europe in adopting socialist policies.  Not to say we completely dodged the bullet.  Government-run schools, minimum wage, excessive taxation, and authoritarian micro-management of businesses and personal behavior all represent various camels' noses under our tent.

And yet the struggle continues.  Green New Deal advocates rail against capitalism.  Oh, dear!  Profit is not all that important.  Really?  Why else would anybody bother to try?  Try what?  To make things better...that's what.


Image via Max Pixel.

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