The Tragedy of The Tragedy of the Commons

Question: In his essay “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Garrett Hardin assumes that a commons will inevitably be degraded. Is this so?

Garrett Hardin, in his essay “The Tragedy of the Commons,” offers a brand new metaphor (‘the tragedy’) by which to interpret the politics of allocating natural resources, as well as a useful concept (‘the commons’) to label those resources which resist the delineations of private property. However, Hardin’s actual arguments behind this concept are quite weak. I will argue that Hardin’s argument was based on a misinterpretation of Bentham; that his plea for governments to restrict births was based on holding a variable as a constant; and that the true importance of his argument comes from its refutation of the laissez-faire subject.

To summarize Garrett Hardin’s argument: using an example of shepherds sharing a common grazing field, he shows that if each shepherd follows their own interests by allowing as many of their goats to feed as they can, the pasture will eventually become overgrazed, leading to adverse consequences for all of the shepherds. Hardin uses this example as a metaphor for all environmental resources. He notes various resources which are ‘commons’, i.e. owned by no one and shared by all, and argues that state control is necessary to distribute resources in amounts that are optimal for all while preventing overuse. In particular, he condemns the UN’s “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” for stating that no person or institution has any right to control the size of a family, i.e. to limit the amount of births in order to prevent overpopulation.

However, Hardin fundamentally misinterprets the utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham, which causes him to overlook the factor of coalition among the parties sharing the commons. Hardin states that Bentham’s goal of “the greatest good for the greatest number” is impossible,

for two reasons, each sufficient by itself. The first is a theoretical one. It is not mathematically possible to maximize for two (or more) variables at the same time. This was clearly stated by von Neumann and Morgenstern, but the principle is implicit in the theory of partial differential equations, dating back at least to D’Alembert (1717– 1783).

The second reason springs directly from biological facts. To live, any organism must have a source of energy (for example, food). This energy is utilized for two purposes: mere maintenance and work. For man, maintenance of life requires about 1600 kilocalories a day (“maintenance calories”). Anything that he does over and above merely staying alive will be defined as work, and is supported by “work calories” which he takes in. Work calories are used not only for what we call work in common speech; they are also required for all forms of enjoyment, from swimming and automobile racing to playing music and writing poetry. If our goal is to maximize population it is obvious what we must do: We must make the work calories per person approach as close to zero as possible. No gourmet meals, no vacations, no sports, no music, no literature, no art… I think that everyone will grant, without argument or proof, that maximizing population does not maximize goods. Bentham’s goal is impossible.

Hardin’s mistake in interpreting “the greatest good for the greatest number” at face value is that he reads it as “we should maximize benefit and we should maximize population.” Bentham’s intended meaning of this phrase, however, is quite different.

Bentham assumed that benefit is something that can be quantified, and he therefore set out to formulate what he called a “hedonic calculus” which could codify benefit into numerical values. His ‘units’ of benefit were as follows:

  1. Intensity: How strong is the pleasure?
  2. Duration: How long will the pleasure last?
  3. Propinquity: How soon will the pleasure occur?
  4. Certainty: How likely or unlikely is it that the pleasure will occur?
  5. Fecundity: How likely is it that the proposed action will produce more pleasure?
  6. Purity: Will there be any pain accompanying the action?
  7. Extent: How many other people will be affected?  (Soccio, 345)

With this in mind, we can see how Bentham’s goal of “the greatest good for the greatest number” can more accurately be read “we ought to maximize the number of benefit-points in a given population; if sacrificing the good of one person will benefit the many, then we ought to do this until we reach the point where sacrificing the good of any more people will bring down the number of benefit-points”

Bentham noted that because of the principle of decreasing benefit, i.e. subsequent units of a good will not bring as much pleasure as the one(s) before it, it produces more benefit overall to share resources collectively.

Ultimately, Bentham’s hedonic calculus was abandoned because it did not work in practice; there are too many variables to come up with an exact value for benefit, which is thus relegated to the realm of the qualitative, that which cannot be quantified.

Nevertheless, there still exist utilitarians who philosophize about the allocation of benefit among a populace, despite having to do so in indeterminate terms. These philosophers do not deserve to be disparaged for this, however; utilitarianism serves as a valid response to those who attempt to find a deontological basis for morality (Kant, Habermas) as well as social contract theorists (Locke, Rousseau). Utilitarians turn their focus to context, in an infrastructural sense, where benefit is determined by the causes & consequences of actions within a given context, rather than by transcendentals such as logic (the full validity of which has been brought into question by Gödel, non-Euclidean geometry, Leśniewski, and others).

The Utilitarians’ main problem arises when they attempt to quantify benefit, but in fact, Hardin does a worse job of this than even Bentham. Hardin writes:

As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?” This utility has one negative and one positive component.

1) The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal. Since the herdsman receives all the proceeds from the sale of the additional animal, the positive utility is nearly +1.
2) The negative component is a function of the additional overgrazing created by one more animal. Since, however, the effects of overgrazing are shared by all the herdsmen, the negative utility for any particular decision-making herdsman is only a fraction of -1.

Hardin’s tragedy of the commons is usually interpreted using the more rigorous Prisoner’s Dilemma from game theory. The idea here is that in this situation, regardless of whether your opponent cooperates (refrains from adding animals) or defects (adds another animal), it is always in your best interest to defect. However, Hardin’s specification of the payoff is misleading in two respects. First, the utility of adding an additional animal is posited to stay at 1, but if more goats are put on a field than it can has resources to sustain, all of the goats will not be able to eat as much grass as they would normally, and hence they would not be as healthy, their meat/milk would not be worth as much on the market, and thus the deficiency would make itself known as the herdsmen’s goats fetch worse and worse prices. Hardin’s second misleading aspect is to keep the negative utility as a vague ‘fraction’, thereby disregarding cases where a herdsman is indifferent between adding a new animal (lessening the amount that his other animals can eat), or letting his other animals eat more. In other words, these ‘fractions’ can add up, so that the Prisoner’s Dilemma structure no longer holds.

Drawing from Bentham’s intended meaning of “the greatest good to the greatest number,” which entirely evades Hardin, we can imagine a solution to the farmers’ problem which does not require the state to impose quotas for each herdsman. The farmers, aware of their mutual plight, could simply form a coalition, where each farmer pledges to only graze their own share of the sustainable amount of goats, on penalty of paying a fine to each of the other herdsman, the cash value of which greatly exceeds the profit the transgressor would make by adding another sheep to the total. The function of the state in such a coalition would simply be to preside over the contract, forcing any transgressors to pay the fine if they refuse. This is the scenario which would most likely occur in practice, though this is not Hardin’s aim: Hardin’s essay, in effect, amounts to an obliteration of the radically laissez-faire subject, i.e. the agent (presupposed, to some extent, by the economic methodology of Hardin’s day) that would simply follow its own interests without co-operation of any kind. Hardin’s real success is a theoretical one, and it is this refutation to which Hardin’s essay owes its fame.

Of course, Hardin’s example of the herdsmen is only meant as an analogue, to be applied to more macroscopic environmental phenomenon. However, coalitions (albeit more tenuous in scope) are still possible. There are two main requirements before such a social arrangement is possible, however. The first is simply awareness; in the above example, herdsmen may realize that they are receiving less money for their goats, but may not make the connection to overgrazing; at any rate, it would be optimal if the herdsmen were made aware of the exact limits of the field’s grazing capacity so that they could arrange their grazing patterns accordingly.

The second requirement is concern: in more macroscopic issues especially, it is difficult to make people care about damage to the environment if it is not immediate. Marshall McLuhan may offer some help here: in his book The Gutenberg Galaxy he convincingly argues that the predominant forms of media in a society shape the thought patterns of its constituents; furthermore, he argues that print media is directly linked to the ability to visualize distant goals, and that the predominance of audial-tactile media such as television (rather than visual print) leads to a situation in which people are literally incapable of planning especially far ahead. Quite counterintuitively, then, McLuhan would argue that the best way to foster awareness of the impact our environmental actions will have on the future is to revitalize reading among the populace. The internet has to a large extent resurrected print, yet not to the exclusion of audial-tactile videos, etc. Alas, perhaps such a method could not work quickly enough in actual practice.

As well, Hardin’s plea for states to impose restrictions on births was based on the presupposition that the birth rates in the third world during his time would remain constant, and perhaps even increase. Since then, however, quite the opposite has occurred: for evidence, see 2:21 to 6:09 of this video by the statistician Hans Rosling. Nevertheless, Hardin deserves to be commended for questioning the validity of the clause in the United Nations’ 1967 “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” which reads as follows:

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights describes the family as the natural and fundamental unit of society. It follows that any choice and decision with regard to the size of the family must irrevocably rest with the family itself, and cannot be made by anyone else.

It has been empirically shown by the anthropologist Kathleen Gough (source) that there exist multiple tribes which do not feature the family unit. As the source above phrases the matter: “To claim something is universal only needs one exception to falsify it,” and it would be sheer colonialist bigotry to suppose that there is anything ‘wrong’ with these tribes because their social arrangements differ from those espoused by the ‘Universal’ Declaration of Human Rights.

Tribal social organizations are qualitatively neither better nor worse than those of the West; they are simply different.

Lastly, for the record, Hardin’s quotation “Freedom is the recognition of necessity,” which he attributes to Hegel, can actually be found in Friedrich Engels’ Anti-Dühring (source). As for his quotation of Nietzsche, “A bad conscience is a kind of illness,” I cannot find the book that it comes from, but The Free Dictionary states that the full quotation is “A bad conscience is a kind of illness, in the sense that pregnancy is an illness.”

In conclusion, it is an interesting historical fact that while Hardin’s essay provides a rich metaphor for resource management, his own arguments in support of it are extremely weak. He has shown that there is a need for the state in such scenarios, at the very least for judicial purposes. It is not inevitable that a commons will be degraded, as long as the agents concerned are aware of what is wrong & what to do about it, as well as concerned enough to take action, even if only in minute ways. Hardin has shown the need for co-ordinated action to respond to environmental threats, and that to ignore these threats in a radically individualist manner leads to catastrophe for all.



  • “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Garrett Hardin, Science, 162(1968):1243-1248.
  • McLuhan, M. (1962). The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
  • Soccio, D. (2010). Archetypes of Wisdom: An Introduction to Philosophy, 7th Ed. Stamford, CT: Wadsworth Publishing.



About Graham Joncas

We are a way for capital to know itself.

Posted on September 19, 2011, in Environmental, History, Politics, Review and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. As far as I can get it, Garrett Hardin’s commons tragedy leads to a first starting point to develop property rights more than we think. The social framework to prevent or end commons tragedy requires all but the social cross sections of social exchange being private. The so-called public roads are a good place to start. We have to deliver our minds from engraved images to shift in the direction of human ecology. The keys to the kingdom are in geography and pop culture vacation diversion spots. Let us do a little mental trip for a moment. Imagine the smallest countries in the free world. What is the use of this mental trip, you may think,we were confronted with statements about how commons tragedy is associated with resourse that are not divided into private property frameworks. It’s assumed that we are doomed to “share” commons not divisable. This is key. Now back to our tiny pleasure cruise and sporting vacation spots. Let’s go to the principality of Monoco. This is a perfect example because of the tiny size of this city state. This exemplifies how private property rights work hand in hand with political liberty from big excuse making commons tragedy formation. Commons tragedy is a result of progressive addictive capital formation. This form of capital is well practiced, like all human capital. It is simply a destructive mental habit due to engraved imaqges regarding the terms being discussed. We must not let Socialist engraved images smother social thinking. Why is it we just assume bigger geographic country is more practical than a classical liberal social economic federation? Monoco is not even as large as many of the world’s cities. It is however, a private property realm. So what would the rest of our world be like if all real estates were assumed to be private like Monoco? It’s not the job of Social science to buy into established norms just because of habit. Of all the human capital in the world, social science should more than all else be free of addictive capital,whether in the name of progressive or consevative social planning. This is like active vs conservative trading. Federations or social networks of small estates could be going concerns, the world over. Monoco and France have cooperative arrangements for their mutual social symbiosis. The same goes for San Marino, landlocked inside Italy. I realize this is old school bourgeois liberal Laissez-faire social thinking. But that is precisely the kind of progressive human capital formation, human ecology requires to move from commons tragedy forward to social frameworks for commons success.

    Our social philosophers from Vienna Law school, from Mengor to Mises, were put into the larger context of the 1994 Fortune Encyclopedia of Economics. Along with these social teachings, were Garrett Hardin and the younger generations of Free Market environs schools of thought. Along with these teachings were Gary Becker’s Human Capital works including his addictive capital studies. One such mental tool of the trade is the 3 D device, Define, Defend & Divest. This is a required social framework for a commonwealth of private property exchange. The main issue or question to be solved, is contracts for social, public crossings, intersections, air space and anything else involving social exchange. It’s not easy, but it’s needed to avoid commons tragedy and move progressively in the direction of commons success.

    A Human Ecology, Free Market environs mental tool of 3D Define, Defend, & Divest is a social framework for limiting social intersections, public crossroads, and air spaces to a minimum for reasons of efficiency and economy which go hand in hand with ecology. Human ecology needs a strong social framework to limit spillovers across well-defined private property frameworks. The Law must defend this social framework to limit pollution or exploitation, overuse, or any use of neighbor’s properties. Property values go hand in hand with Public market values, which go hand in hand with neighborhood values. The third D in the 3D human ecology free market environs social framework is Divest. If nobody else in our public market values our properties then we lose our free market environs values which means no divestment for trading up for our private subjective property values. 3D is the key to human ecology.

    Vienna Law school’s Dr. Ludwig von Mises writing in his Socialism: an Economic and Sociological Analysis, about Progressive Capital formation and Progressive Capital accumulation, along with Progressive social bonding intensification in his Human Action, economics’ classic text. These self-described Bourgeois, laissez-faire liberal social science teachings go hand in hand with later social science human ecology and human capital teachings. It’s all about the fruits of our labours or put another way our properties social utility. This goes hand in hand with our talent, skill, and worksmanship from investing our time and practice at self improvement for our selves and neighbors. This is the meaning of KungFu. Our works,deeds and values to self and neighbors are our human capital. Addictive capital is counterproductive practices to perfection. Individual social value in practiced perfection, in our handiworks is our social utility. The fruits of our labours are our progressive capital formation. The collective Progressive capital formation is the accumulation of social utility for us all.

    In speaking above of 3D, if anybody else devalues our property values then we face potential downgrading of our public market value, neighborhood value, and property value or trade value. If we keep up our property value then we keep up our trade value public market value and neighborhood value. We cannot afford to neglect this intertwined social economic values exchange. The challenge is to expand private property rights in a progressive intensifying direction. Public intersections, social cross sections, and commons exchanges are the spots we associate with public market and social spaces which can be commons fareways of wealth, wellness, and commons success.

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