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The tragedy of the commons

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 1989. The tragedy of the commons. Canadian Forest Service, Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. Staff Newsletter, April:6–7.

Back in my university days (lo! these many months ago!), I was introduced to a speculative paper by Garrett Hardin entitled The Tragedy of the Commons (Science 162:1243-1248). The author of this essay made a very interesting point about how we poor mortals interact socially, namely: to survive as a society, with certain elements shared in common, we must relinquish a measure of our individual freedom. The "tragedy" occurs when we refuse to acknowledge this and our shared goods ("the commons") are diminished as a result of our selfishness. There are endless examples of this phenomenon, as in the case of our national parks, in which the right to experience nature has led to such overcrowding that a visitor is often unable to get far enough away from other visitors to actually experience nature. In a more serious sense, the smooth functioning of society itself is the most abused of the commons; as an example, consider the case of a murderer whose "right" to parole leads to his release, often despite the recommendations of those who know the person, and who then commits a murder once again.

This observation calls into question the belief that freedom should be (or is) a so-called inalienable right. (History has shown that there is no such thing as a right that cannot be alienated, and any right that you care to name has been alienated countless times in the past.) Dispensing for the moment with an exact definition of what we mean by the word "freedom", it seems obvious that our society holds the belief of inalienable rights as a cherished truth; indeed, this has led to our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But although we might wish to have unlimited freedom, no one would argue against the principle that certain freedoms must be relinquished by those who choose to live in our society: the freedom to murder (as an obvious extreme case), and the freedom to steal, for example. Full freedom to speak one's mind (as in the case of speech that incites hatred) has been and will always be restricted, as there are always some things that society (or government) judges unacceptable. In short, although this does the complexity of the issue an injustice, our concept of freedom is actually a modified version of the golden rule: the laws that govern our freedom place the welfare of others at a level equal to or above that of our own needs of the moment.

What interests me about the modern concept of freedom is that it has become divorced from the traditional companion concept of responsibility. For example, if I were to ask "Do you believe that you have the right to drive a car on the province's highways?", I suspect that most of you would answer with an unqualified "yes". What we are really guaranteed is the right to drive a car provided that we obey the traffic laws and demonstrate a certain minimum skill in the use of our vehicle. Implicit in this is the knowledge that, by accepting even these slight limits on our right to drive, we concede that driving is a privilege, not a right, and that this privilege can be taken away from us if we aren't willing to uphold our responsibility. In short, we all sacrifice the freedom to perform purely selfish actions (in this case, reckless or undisciplined driving) that might harm another person's life.

I leave it to you to ponder why we, as a society, are unwilling to suspend the privilege to drive in certain cases of flagrant abuse. Drunk drivers, for example. Even in something as unimportant as baseball, which is only a sport, you're "out" after three strikes. I've long since stopped counting the number of newspaper stories I've read about people who have had their licenses suspended for the fifth or even sixth time after conviction on charges of impaired driving. What has happened to the concept of responsibility for our own actions when a bartender who served the drunk is punished more than the drunk who committed the crime? In this day and age, it's no longer fashionable to talk about duty to our fellow man, duty to our country, or indeed, self-sacrifice in any form. For my own part, I had never encountered the concept of the tragedy of the commons in nearly 20 years of schooling, and I don't remember any discussion at all about the virtues and drawbacks of patriotism (i.e., the responsibilities that come with the privilege of citizenship). Indeed, I suspect that I and my former schoolmates are relatively unique among our generation in that our high school provided mandatory courses that dealt to some degree with ethics, watered down though these courses were. I suspect that the more common lack of training in ethics has many consequences that are reflected in the way our society behaves; as a notorious example, many (I hesitate to say most) people seem to feel no overt responsibility to give up any of their "inalienable rights" to favor another person.

Put another way, it is easy to see how the tragedy of the commons works. Few, if any, of us would argue that it is preferable to help another rather than to cause them harm through action or inaction. Yet this sort of thought process is not made fundamental to the way we think about our rights, and the same people who would agree with the idea of "help or cause no harm" would probably protest against making this a legal requirement of all members of our society. At some point, we all come to the realization that mature human beings must sometimes make sacrifices for the good of loved ones; it is much more difficult to make the same sacrifice for the good of strangers, yet this is supposed to be a fundamental part of the code of values on which we were raised. (Consider the biblical "good samaritan", for example, or the Old Testament custom of washing the feet of a visitor, even a stranger, and offering them refreshment.) Attitudes are tricky things. It is too easy to rationalize, to say that "I don't make the sacrifices because no one else does." (Or worse yet, "I'd feel like a fool doing something that unusual.") When everyone adopts the same attitude, no sacrifices occur.

Yet on the other hand, if you made a sacrifice for someone else, even something as simple as putting out a cigarette so that someone won't have to breathe your smoke, just maybe they would do something as nice for you. Small changes often lead to large consequences, and someone has to start somewhere.

I'd like to see a national holiday in which everyone became an honorary Boy Scout for a day. The objective of that holiday would be to spend the time looking for good deeds to do, and everyone would be required, as the admission price to a public picnic held at the end of the day, to perform one good deed for a stranger. Enforcement would be a problem, although peer pressure, that mightiest of forces, would almost certainly ensure that the majority would participate. At first, this wish was only an amusing idea with which to end this essay, but when I stopped to consider it further, it occurred to me that it's a joke in very poor taste. After all, what is so funny about wanting to help others, even if only once per year? In my own experience, a good deed is its own reward, and an addictive one at that; the more good one does, the easier it becomes to do more. You can't legislate good will, yet I wonder what our society would be like if a few more people were willing to make some sacrifices for society's common good.

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