Sunday, June 09, 2013

The Tragedy of Misunderstanding the Example of the Commons

Deirdre Scanlon, Lynchburg College, writes and cites
A Green Thumb on the Invisible Hand:  Exploring Environmental Trade PoliciesHERE  
Deirdre Scanlon cites, among others: “Garrett Hardin. “The Tragedy of the Commons.” In Shaping the Environment: Science, Technology, and Society, edited by David O. Freier, 294-310. Lynchburg College, 2009.”
Economists and other scholars theorise different forces that guide the market to stay balanced and profitable.  One of such theorist, Adam Smith, asserts in The Wealth of Nations, that an “invisible hand” guides human self-interest to benefit the free market or the public interest.  Smith claims that when individuals in the free market act on their own individual interest, the “invisible hand” transforms their self-interest into a public benefit.
However, as Garrett Hardin argues, if this assumption of an “invisible hand” is not correct, then self-interest may not benefit the whole, and people may actually be hurting the general public. 
As population grows more quickly, so does the demand for goods.  The “invisible hand,” if it actively exists, may guide the self-interest of this growing population for the general good of the world’s economy, but how far does it go to protect the environment?  As population grows, more natural resources will be abused within a nation and more trade will occur between nations to sustain growth.  The effect trade has on the environment is important to study to create the most effective policies to limit degradation, while still providing for the global population.  This paper will examine the effects of human consumption on the environment as well as international environmental policies in effect today, and it will propose a new international cap-and-trade policy to alleviate environmental degradation in regard to trade. Degradation due to trade falls in line with the “tragedy of the commons” as first proposed by William Forster Lloyd and reexamined by Garrett Hardin. Those who are joined in common land with intent to use it for the general good often find that once the public’s needs have been met, there is no reason to avoid acting upon self-interest.  For instance, if a herdsman were using common land to raise cattle, that herdsman would only benefit from adding one more cow to his herd.
“As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain.”  However, while this additional cow benefits that herdsman, it also presents a disadvantage because one additional cow has a negative environmental impact from overgrazing.  On communal land, all of the herdsmen will be affected. Unfortunately, this problem is not limited to one additional cow; each and every herdsman will be enticed to “[seek] to maximize his gain,” and therefore, “each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit – in a world that is limited.
This idea of “the tragedy of the commons” is a large factor in environmental degradation.  The herdsman trades his one cow for money, and then he adds two more cows, then three, then four, for additional benefit; in the process, the land becomes overgrazed and, if left unchecked, it could deteriorate into desert.  In this way, it is easy to see how production and trade can lead to environmental degradation.  As individuals working within the commons act on self-interest, pollution and unsustainable practices increase, and issues such as climate change grow more prevalent. The “invisible hand” guides this self-interest, but only so far as to promote an individual’s welfare and profit; the “invisible hand” does nothing to entice environmental sustainability. Although not all of the world’s environmental degradation is caused by trade, a significant amount can be attributed to it. … Climate change due to greenhouse gases is primarily due to human emissions in relation to production. Most of the human emissions causing global warming “come from the combustion of fossil fuels in cars, factories and electricity production.” … Trade is fueling environmental degradation. … A green thumb needs to be added onto the “invisible hand” in the free market. … In the following pages I will outline the details of a new policy (hereafter referred to as the Green Thumb (GT) Program) that will draw upon the Kyoto Protocol’s idea of cap and trade while also eliminating the Protocol’s flaws.
Deirdre Scanlon uses her concept of the role of “an invisible hand”, credited to Adam Smith, as well as ilustrated by Garrett Hardin in his elaboration of the “tragedy of the commons”, who was for many years an advocate of strict population limitation, which he regarded as the no. 1 world wide-problem facing humanity.  Capping world population was advocated by Hardin, albeit regretfully, as the only solution by which the degradation of the environment could be avoided, without mentioning the totalitarian horrors of such a global policy.
In light of this ‘solution’, Deidre Scanlon quickly moves on with the usual “environmental” consequences if there is an unseen entity of an “invisible hand” at work guiding the process that can only be thwarted by a “Green Thumb”, thereby losing touch with reality with a weak metaphoric entity.
Given that the “invisible hand” is, well, invisible, under the direction of nobody or nothing else, and the “Green Thumb” remedy requires consensual direction  among 140 countries, some of them super powers and others less so, based on renegotiating the “Kyoto Protocols”, cobbled together from all-night sittings of weary political operators, among such veteran party in-fighters as England’s own John Prescott, with the usual noisy far-out “environmentalists” denouncing the “Kyoto sell-out” from the side-lines. In short, a hopeless mess with no future and largely now forgotten.
It seems not even worthwhile to explain that Adam Smith has been seriously misrepresented on his use of the “invisible hand” metaphor (see Lost Legacy passim).  And Garrett’s grievously partial version of the “tragedy of the commons” missed its most important point.  Nobody “owned” the commons, it was not private property and no individual had an interest in protecting it, therefore, absent collective restraint, it would degrade, which is why the human discovery of the idea of private property was pivotal in the social evolution that eventually followed the new revolutionary idea of property from which civilization became possible (see Adam Smith’s “Lectures On Jurisprudence, 1762-3”).
“Common Lands” emerged close to human settlements, at the pleasure of the monarchy, and people grazed their cows or sheep, constrained by custom and the scrutinising attention of their neighbours (which generally kept the common lands fertile and not over-grazed, each herdsman knows his neighbours well - that's why they lasted for centuries without over grazing, etc.  Richer neighbours seized and held their larger properties against all comers, be they rich rivals or poor property-less intruders (Smith, Lectures On Jurisprudence –Smith always spoke frankly on the realities of power relations associated with property).
The “Enclosure of the Commons Acts”, turned them into private property, which was brutal and unjust, but both legally and a necessary part of the transformation of the countryside into commercial assets during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries in England.  In Scotland the ancient clan titles were held in the common ownership of chiefs and their immediate families and became private property under the new ownership of clan chiefs after the failures of Jacobitism (a wholly dynastic quarrel between UK Unionists and nothing to do with independence for Scotland), which also undermined the ancient clan loyalties that survive, even today, mainly as a romantic memory, with ‘clan’ tartans, mythical tourism attractions, and all that tat).
I suggest that Hardin and Scanlon missed the point of the issues they raise in general and those about Adam Smith in particular.


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