Tuesday, September 4, 2018

The banality of the Tragedy?

As promised, I'm going to post on some of the articles that were published as part of the issue of Theoretical Inquiries in Law on "The Tragedy at 50", which I co-edited with Carol Rose. These articles attempt to provide historical context for the modern commons discourse.

First up is Stuart Banner's "The Banality of the Commons: Efficiency Arguments Against Common Ownership Before Hardin". The abstract:
The Tragedy of the Commons tends to be remembered today as the canonical statement of the idea that commonly-owned resources will be overused. But this idea was well known for centuries before Hardin wrote. Hardin acknowledged that he got the example of cattle in a common field from the early nineteenth century economist William Forster Lloyd, and by Lloyd’s time the idea was already familiar and was already being applied to the analysis of overpopulation, Hardin’s primary concern. This paper will trace the history of the idea that common ownership is inefficient, and will suggest why  The Tragedy of the Commons nevertheless quickly attained its canonical status.
On the other hand, Nathaniel Wolloch has a different view, as evidenced in his "Before the Tragedy of the Commons: Early Modern Economic Considerations of the Public Use of Natural Resources":
John Stuart Mill
This article distinguishes between the precise legal and economic approach to the commons used by Hardin and many other modern commentators, and the broader post-Hardinian concept utilized in environmentally-oriented discussions and aiming to limit the use of the commons for the sake of preservation. Particularly in the latter case, it is claimed, any notion of the tragedy of the commons is distinctly a modern twentieth-century one, and was foreign to the early modern and even nineteenth-century outlooks. This was true of the early modern mercantilists, and also of classical political economists such as Adam Smith and even, surprisingly, Malthus, as well as of Jevons and his neoclassical discussion aimed at maximizing the long-term use of Britain’s coal reserves. One intellectual who did recognize the problematic possibility of leaving some tracts of land in their pristine condition to answer humanity’s need for a spiritual connection with nature was J. S. Mill, but even he regarded this as in essence almost a utopian ideal. The notion of the tragedy of the commons in its broader sense is therefore a distinctly modern one.
Banner and Wolloch come from different disciplinary backgrounds, which may affect their understanding of what exactly the "tragedy of the commons" is supposed to mean. (I, for one, am with Banner on this.)

No comments:

Post a Comment