No, the “Tragedy of the Commons” Isn’t Some Selfish ‘Right-Wing’ Concept

by | Oct 27, 2023 | Opinion

Guest post by Diego L. 

In a recent commentary by Arinn Amer in the Jacobin, the concept of ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ is misconstrued as a right-wing narrative that purportedly serves the interests of the privileged at the expense of common resources. However, this interpretation misses the mark on the true essence and utility of the libertarian perspective on resource management.

The ‘Tragedy of the Commons,’ as articulated by Garrett Hardin, serves as a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of communal resource management. It illustrates the inherent human tendency towards over-consumption and misuse of shared resources when there is no defined ownership or accountability. Contrary to Amer’s claim, the theory is not an endorsement of unbridled privatization or a critique of communal sharing per se, but a call for responsible and sustainable management of resources through clearly defined property rights.

Amer tries to debunk the theory by referencing the work of political scientist Elinor Ostrom, who demonstrated instances where communities managed shared resources sustainably. However, this overlooks the fact that Ostrom’s examples often involve clearly defined rules, responsibilities, and mechanisms for conflict resolution — akin to the establishment of property rights, a core tenet of libertarianism.

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Furthermore, the piece invokes historical references such as the enclosure movement in England to underline the supposed evils of privatization. Yet, it glosses over the fact that the transition from communal to private ownership in many instances led to better-managed and more productive resources, which in turn contributed to economic growth and advancements in living standards.

Amer’s narrative also conveniently omits the myriad instances where lack of clear ownership or mismanagement of communal resources has led to environmental degradation, overfishing, deforestation, and other ecological disasters. This selective historical interpretation serves a specific ideological agenda but fails to provide a balanced view of the complex dynamics of resource management.

The insinuation that the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ theory is tied to a broader conservative or right-wing ideology to control population growth among the poor is a misrepresentation. Libertarianism, at its core, champions individual freedom and responsibility, which extend to the realm of resource management. By establishing clear property rights, individuals or communities become stewards of the resources they own, incentivized to manage them sustainably for long-term benefit rather than short-term exploitation.

The mischaracterization of libertarian principles and the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ as ecofascist or as tools for societal control reflects a misunderstanding, or perhaps a deliberate misrepresentation, of libertarianism. It’s crucial to recognize that advocating for defined property rights is not a call for unbridled privatization or an endorsement of exploitation, but a pragmatic approach to fostering responsibility, sustainability, and accountability in resource management.

In conclusion, the libertarian stance on the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ remains a relevant and rational approach to addressing the pressing environmental challenges we face. It’s a call for a structured, responsible, and sustainable approach to resource management that aligns individual and community interests with long-term ecological sustainability.

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