All Commentary
Monday, January 1, 1996

On the Need for Social Coercion (excerpt)

There Is a Non-Coercive Solution to the Tragedy of the Commons Problem

Mr. Huemer is a graduate student in philosophy at Rutgers University. He was Third Prize winner in the 1995-1996 Olive W. Garvey Fellowship. A copy of his full essay is available on request.

Editor’s Note: In his paper, Mr. Huemer argues that social coercion is unjustified in attempts to solve the tragedy-of-the-commons problem both because it is inadequate and because better solutions to the problem exist.

We are faced with a problem. Supposing that commons situations exist in our society (the management of natural resources is the most likely example), what, if anything, can be done about them, to avert the disaster that ensues if everyone acts as a rational egoist? Garrett Hardin suggests this solution: we can agree to establish some central authority which will force us all to cooperate.[1] This is what he calls “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon.” Thus, ill-fated ranchers might get together and pick some impartial party to be the “police”; let’s say they pick Bob. They give Bob their guns and tell him, “Now make sure none of us puts too many cattle on the land,” and presumably they pay him some compensation for performing this job. Then they all go home feeling relieved and secure.

But another problem arises, which Hardin recognizes but hasn’t much of a solution for: now that Bob is charged with watching the ranchers, who will watch Bob? If the ranchers cannot be assured that Bob will do the job they have given him competently, or that he will not otherwise exploit them, then they have not found much of a solution to their problem.

Bob might disappoint the ranchers in various ways, once he is given power: (a) He might fail to protect the commons due to ignorance of what was required; he might not know how many cattle was too many to let use the land, for example. (b) He might fail to protect the commons due to lack of interest; after all, if it is not his land, he may not care if it is degraded. (c) He might decide to exploit the commons himself; he might start raising his own animals on the land, and keep off the ranchers’ cows. (d) He might demand exorbitant fees from the ranchers for his services.

How, then, can the ranchers be sure that Bob will not attempt to do these things? Since we have assumed he has sufficient power to force the ranchers to use the commons responsibly, there is reason to suspect that he will also have sufficient power to exploit the ranchers and their land.

Of course, this story is most interesting as a metaphor: if we as a society establish a coercive institution (in particular, a government) to force individuals to behave in ways that are beneficial to the group, how can we be sure that this institution will use its power to serve the interests of society and not rather merely to serve its own interests?

Here’s one solution we might come up with: if Bob does not do his job properly, the ranchers can get together and collectively oust him. Hopefully, the threat of this will keep Bob in line.

This plan, however, confronts a problem analogous to the original tragedy of the commons. Each individual rancher would have to decide whether to join in the effort to overthrow Bob. By joining in, he incurs a certain risk to himself, but he also increases the chances that the rebellion will be successful. The problem is that the costs involved in his individual decision to help overthrow Bob will be borne by himself, whereas the benefits will redound to the group. So he will not join, preferring to stay at home and let the others take care of Bob; and, following the same reasoning, neither will anyone else.

This result is much clearer if we consider the possibility of overthrowing a government, for in that case it is still less likely that one individual’s decision to join the rebellion will make the difference to whether it succeeds, but it is highly likely that it will result in that individual’s death. We have, then, another tragedy-of-the-commons problem: each person has an action available to him that would harm him individually but would benefit the group; and the logic of the commons predicts that no one will choose that action, even though the group as a whole is worse off in that case than they would be if everyone acted.

A second possible solution to our problem (in the context of the government of society) would be this: we have a democratic government. We can periodically elect leaders to tell us what to do, and we can vote out of office those who do not do their jobs well. Although this proposal is some improvement, it still introduces another form of the tragedy of the commons. Discovering which policies are desirable, which elected officials have performed well, and which candidates will perform well in the future, all requires extensive research. The individual who chooses thus to watch the government takes on all the costs in time and energy of his decision, while the benefits of his action are shared by the group. Under these circumstances, as the tragedy-of-the-commons logic predicts, very few people will expend their resources becoming informed about and involved in political matters. And, again, the individual who chooses so to expend his time has almost no chance in a large society of noticeably affecting public policy. This, rather than voter “apathy,” is the reason why people in a democratic society usually don’t vote, and when they do, they are usually ill informed. Voters realize that informing themselves about public policy and voting is a waste of their time.

Perhaps the answer is that we just have to hope for our leaders to be responsible and benevolent. The question then becomes whether this is any more realistic than hoping for ordinary citizens to be responsible and benevolent to begin with (in which case the tragedy of the commons problem would not have arisen). There is, on the contrary, reason to expect leaders of a coercive institution to be less altruistic than ordinary citizens. Those who desire as a career making rules that the rest of society are forced to obey, are likely to be those who value power and enjoy exercising power. Such individuals, I think, are less likely to be altruistic than the general run of men, and they will have a tendency to extend their own power whenever they can. Furthermore, the opportunities for benefitting oneself at the expense of the rest of society are certainly greater according as one has more power, so it is not clear that we have gained anything by placing power in the hands of a few individuals in order to prevent the others from selfishly harming society.

Is There a Non-Coercive Solution?

The solution to Garrett Hardin’s original tragedy of the commons problem is fairly straightforward: the ranchers need a system of private property. If we can suppose the ranchers to be sufficiently coordinated and reasonable to be able to get together and agree to set up a government-like institution, then they ought to be coordinated and reasonable enough to be able instead to agree to divide up the commons into individually-owned parcels of land. Furthermore, they don’t need even this degree of coordination if each rancher simply claims a plot of land if he is the first person to find and use it (Lockean fashion). Each rancher then will have an incentive to maintain the quality of the grazing area because only so will he be able to continue to use his land in the future.

1. Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science, December 13, 1968, pp. 12143-8.