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While I knew the general ideas in Hardin's 1968 paper, I'd never actually read the original until just now. That's okay in science, where ideas take life beyond their original proposals... but still, it can be interesting to go back and read the sources. Biologists still get a bunch of ideas from Darwin's books, or find ideas prefigured there, because he was that smart *and* thorough a biologist; The Wealth of Nations is often not what you expect if you read it, as socialists like Brust and Chomsky have pointed out.

I invite others to read the essay, and post their reactions, ideally without seeing what others have said first. You can ignore Beryl Crowe's comments in the link, beneath the endnotes.

The paper is commonly described as being about an example of cattle in a village commons, with each herdsman adding cattle in their own short-term self-interest, at the expense of all. This example is there, but it's a surprisingly tiny part of the essay, a few paragraphs a third of the way in. He gives various other examples: unmetered holiday parking in a congested zone, overfishing, pollution, overgrazing on public US land (a more perfect match for the famous example than historical villages), attendance of National Parks... and population. I think there's more words devoted to overpopulation than to any other topic, something I'd never seen mentioned. He notes that while unlimited individual breeding might not be a problem in a state of nature, the welfare (gloss: and democratic) state creates a commons in which it is potentially a problem. There's no suggestion that welfare states are a bad idea, he's thoroughly 'liberal', but instead population must be controlled somehow.

Though if he ever suggested a concrete idea, I've missed it -- I just see an insistence that sticking to voluntary control is a mug's game.

Of course, 42 years and one demographic transition later, overpopulation is far from a concern in most demographers' minds; even poor countries are having plummeting birth rates as women get more education and power. *Iran* is sub-replacement. If anything, the welfare state commons seems overshadowed by the social security commons, where one is supported in old age regardless of whether one raised children to contribute to such support... but that's just a different form of the tragedy of the commons.

I really like his phrase "Mutual Coercion Mutually Agreed Upon", it's a perfect summation of how democratic regulation works.

Someone I know likes to point out that traditional village commons were regulated, not subject to tragedy, but I've always felt that supported Hardin's point, not undermined it; all it undermines is claims that division into private property is the only form of regulation, a claim which, (getting back to "getting back to the classics"), is not in the paper. Hardin's quite friendly to other forms of public regulation, such as taxation, or lotteries, or access by rotation. The "commons" of the title is free and open commons, unregulated, not what might traditionally have been described as a village commons.

Some brief interesting notes on society's innate conservatism, and reforms being held to a critical standard the status quo would not meet.

I'm surprised that population was such a focus of the paper, but not shocked by the ideas; I've long thought that some sort of public feedback would be necessary, if we actually want stable population. Zero population growth is an implausibly precise target to just happen to reach, without some sort of feedback like food shortages or the government telling you there are too many/not enough kids at the moment. I expect many other people will be more disturbed; I know at least one person who's insisted even AIs should have the right to copy themselves without limit, refusing to consider what that might do to a democracy.

Addendum: I should grant that while ZPG as a continuously sustained rate is implausibly precise, I'm less sure of it as an average of a rate fluctuating within a bandgap. It might be that in crowded conditions, or with broad social signals of "too many people", people bring their birth rate down, and then back up when the population falls, such that the population oscillates around a stable point without anyone having to starve or be directly forced into or against anything. Like a thermostat. I'm skeptical, thinking the average would still most likely drift up or down, but I'm not sure.

* Some problems have no technical solution, but may have political solutions
* In a finite world, optimal population is less than the maximal population; one wants high energy [and happiness] per capita as well as high capita. [Caveat: high populations can be more creative and efficient, thus liberating more energy... but the basic principle probably still holds.]
* No population has a growth rate of zero. [Some societies today having or heading toward a growth rate *less* than zero does not refute that.]
* Tragedy of freedom in a commons; pollution as another example
* "Analysis of the pollution problem as a function of population density uncovers a not generally recognized principle of morality, namely: the morality of an act is a function of the state of the system at the time it is performed... That morality is system-sensitive escaped the attention of most codifiers of ethics in the past."
* "Freedom to Breed Is Intolerable" in the context of a welfare state that has done away with the natural population limit of individual or family-level starvation, or family-level resource limits that inspire individual birth control. Having removed the natural systematic feedback, it must be replaced with another.
* And not conscience, which is self-eliminating and pathogenic in this application anyway.
* "The only kind of coercion I recommend is mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon by the majority of the people affected... To say that we mutually agree to coercion is not to say that we are required to enjoy it, or even to pretend we enjoy it. Who enjoys taxes? We all grumble about them. But we accept compulsory taxes because we recognize that voluntary taxes would favor the conscienceless. We institute and (grumblingly) support taxes and other coercive devices to escape the horror of the commons."
* "It is one of the peculiarities of the warfare between reform and the status quo that it is thoughtlessly governed by a double standard. Whenever a reform measure is proposed it is often defeated when its opponents triumphantly discover a flaw in it."
* "Perhaps the simplest summary of this analysis of man's population problems is this: the commons, if justifiable at all, is justifiable only under conditions of low-population density. As the human population has increased, the commons has had to be abandoned in one aspect after another."

Side note: he mentions "Charles Galton Darwin", so I looked him up; Wikipedia tells me Darwin's granddaughter married Keynes's brother. Uniting the great families! Huh, Francis Galton was half-cousin to Charles (Robert) Darwin.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 8th, 2010 09:21 pm (UTC)
I'd also never read the original before, although I have read many commentaries about it. I was surprised at the focus on overpopulation and also at the fact that the author did not (unlike almost everyone who used this essay to support their arguments) claim that private property with strictly enforced property rights was the only way to avoid overexploitation of resources. Definitely an unexpected essay given all that I'd read about it. Once again, original sources prove to be useful.
Jul. 8th, 2010 10:09 pm (UTC)
For some, a better title might have been "Tragedy of the unregulated commons", though I think for Hardin commons *meant* unregulated, free and open to all, as opposed to actual village commons bounded by customs and social pressure.

Frowning on people who have eight children is the vestigial level of such social pressure, I guess. Doesn't seem a precise regulator.

Oh, I forgot an important note, let me go add it.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )


Damien Sullivan

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