October 17, 2009

JOHN TIERNEY: The Non-Tragedy of the Commons.

The 2009 Nobel Prize for economics is a useful reminder of how easy it is for scientists to go wrong, especially when their mistake jibes with popular beliefs or political agendas.

Elinor Ostrom of Indiana University shared the prize for her research into the management of “commons,” which has been a buzzword among ecologists since Garrett Hardin’s 1968 article Science, “The Tragedy of the Commons.” His fable about a common pasture that is ruined by overgrazing became one of the most-quoted articles ever published by that journal, and it served as a fundamental rationale for the expansion of national and international regulation of the environment. His fable was a useful illustration of a genuine public-policy problem — how do you manage a resource that doesn’t belong to anyone? — but there were a couple of big problems with the essay and its application.

First, Dr. Hardin himself misapplied the fable. Declaring that “overpopulation” was a tragedy of the commons, he warned that “freedom to breed will bring ruin to all.” He and others advocated a “lifeboat ethic” of denying food aid, even during emergencies, to poor countries with rapidly growing populations. But “overpopulation” was not even a theoretical example of the tragedy of the commons. Parents are not like the cattle owners who profit individually by adding cows to the pasture (while collectively destroying it). Parents, unlike the cattle owners, have to pay to feed and house and educate their children, and the high economic costs of children are one reason that birth rates have declined around the world — without any of the coercion discussed by Dr. Hardin and some other ecologists (like Paul Ehrlich).

Read the whole thing. Sometimes I think the desire for coercion comes first, then the theory to justify it. . . .

Comments are closed.
InstaPundit is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.