What Shanl We Mam?
The Tragedy of the Commons
The population problem has no technical solution;
it requires a fundamental extension in morality.
At the end of a thoughtful article on
the future of nuclear war, Wiesner and
York (1) concluded that: “Both sides in
the arms race are … confronted by the
dilemma of steadily increasing military
power and steadily decreasing national
security. It is our considered professional judgment that this dilemma has
no technical solution. If the great powers continue to look for solutions in
the area of science and technology only,
the result will be to worsen the situation.”
I would like to focus your attention
not on the subject of the article (national security in a nuclear world) but
on the kind of conclusion they reached,
namely that there is no technical solution to the problem. An implicit and
almost universal assumption of discussions published in professional and
semipopular scientific journals is that
the problem under discussion has a
technical solution. A technical solution
may be defined as one that requires a
change only in. the techniques of the
natural sciences, demanding little or
nothing in the way of change in human
values or ideas of morality.
In our day (though not in earlier
times) technical solutions are always
welcome. Because of previous failures
in prophecy, it takes courage to assert
that a desired technical solution is not
possible. Wiesner and York exhibited
this courage; publishing in a science
journal, they insisted that the solution
to the problem was not to be found in
the natural sciences. They cautiously
qualified their statement with the
phrase, “It is our considered profesThe author is professor of biology, University
of California, Santa Barbara. This article is
based on a presidential address presented before
the meeting of the Pacific Division of the American Association for the Advancement of Science
at Utah State University, Logan, 25 June 1968.
13 DECEMBER 1968
sional judgment. . . .” Vhether they
were right or not is not the concern of
the present article. Rather, the concern
here is with the important concept of a
class of human problems which can be
called “no technical solution problems,”
and, more specifically, with the identification and discussion of one of these.
It is easy to show that the class is not
a null class. Recall the game of ticktack-toe. Consider the problem, “How
can I win. the game of tick-tack-toe?”
It is well known that I cannot, if I assume (in keeping with the conventions
of game theory) that my opponent understands the game perfectly. Put another way, there is no “technical solution” to the problem. I can win only
by giving a radical meaning to the word
“win.” I can hit my opponent over the
head; or I can drug him; or I can falsify
the records. Every way in which I “win”
involves, in some sense, an abandonment of the game, as we intuitively understand it. (I can also, of course,
openly abandon the game-refuse to
play it. This is what most adults do.)
The class of “No technical solution
problems” has members. My thesis is
that the “population problem,” as conventionally conceived, is a member of
this class. How it is conventionally conceived needs some comment. It is fair
to say that most people who’ anguish
over the population problem are trying
to find a way to avoid the evils of overpopulation without relinquishing any of
the privileges they now enjoy. They
think that farming the seas or developing new strains of wheat will solve the
problem-technologically. I try to show
here that the solution they seek cannot
be found. The population problem cannot be solved in a technical way, any
more than can the problem of winning
the game of tick-tack-toe.
Population, as Malthus said, naturally
tends to grow “geometrically,” or, as we
would now say, exponentially. In a
finite world this means that the per
capita share of the world’s goods must
steadily decrease. Is ours a finite world?
A fair defense can be put forward for
the view that the world is infinite; or
that we do not know that it is not. But,
in terms of the practical problems that
we must face in the next few generations with the foreseeable technology, it
is clear that we will greatly increase
human misery if we do not, during the
immediate future, assume that the world
available to the terrestrial human population is finite. “Space” is no escape
A finite world can support only a
finite population; therefore, population
growth must eventually equal zero. (The
case of perpetual wide fluctuations
above and below zero is a trivial variant
that need not be discussed.) When this
condition is met, what will be the situation of mankind? Specifically, can Bentham’s goal of “the greatest good for
the greatest number” be realized?
No-for two reasons, each sufficient
by itself. The first is a theoretical one.
It is not mathematically possible to
maximize for two (or more) variables at
the same time. This was clearly stated
by von Neumann and Morgenstern (3),
but the principle is implicit in the theory
of partial differential equations, dating
back at least to D’Alembert (1717-
The second reason springs directly
from biological facts. To live, any
organism must have a source of energy
(for example, food). This energy is
utilized for two puposes: mere maintenance and work. For man, maintenance of life requires about 1600 kilocalories a day (“maintenance calories’).
Anything that he does over and above
merely staying alive will be defined as
work, and is supported by “work calories” which he takes in. Work calories
are used not only for what we call work
in common speech; they are also required for all forms of enjoyment, from
swimming and automobile racing to
playing music and writing poetry. If
our goal is to maximize population it is
obvious what we must do: We must
make the work calories per person approach as close to zero as possible. No
gourmet meals, no vacations, no sports,
no music, no literature, no art. . . . I
think that everyone will grant, without
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argument or proof, that maximizing
population does not max2imize goods.
Bentham’s goal is impossible.
In reaching this conclusion I have
made the usual assumption that it is
the acquisition of energy that is the
problem. The appearance of atomic
energy has led some to question this
assumption. However, given an infinite
source of energy, population growth
still produces an inescapable problem.
The problem of the acquisition of energy is replaced by the problem of its
dissipation, as J. H. Fremlin has so wittily shown (4). The arithmetic signs in
-t-he analysis are, as it were, reversed;
but Bentham’s goal is still unobtainable.
The optimum population is, then, less
than the maximum. The difficulty of
defining the optimum is enormous; so
far as I know, no one has seriously
tackled this problem. Reaching an acceptable and stable solution will surely
require more than one generation of
hard analytical work-and much persuasion.
We want the maximum good per
person; but what is good? To one person it is wilderness, to another it is ski
lodges for thousands. To one it is estuaries to nourish ducks for hunters to
shoot; to another it is factory land.
Comparing one good with another is,
we usually say, impossible because
goods are incommensurable. Incommensurables cannot be compared.
Theoretically this may be true; but in
real life incommensurables are commensurable. Only a criterion of judgment
and a system of weighting are needed.
In nature the criterion is survival. Is it
better for a species to be small and hideable, or large and powerful? Natural
selection commensurates the incommensurables. The compromise achieved depends on a natural weighting of the
values of the variables.
Man must imitate this process. There
is no doubt that in fact he already does,
but unconsciously. It is when the hidden
decisions are made explicit that the
arguments begin. The problem for the
years ahead is to work out an acceptable theory of weighting. Synergistic
effects, nonlinear variation, and difficulties in discounting the future make the
intellectual problem difficult, but not
(in principle) insoluble.
Has any cultural group solved this
practical problem at the present time,
even on an intuitive level? One simple
fact proves that none has: there is no
prosperous population in the world today that has, and has had for some
time,-p – rate of zero. Any people
that has intuitively identified its optimum point will soon reach it, after
which its growth rate becomes and remains zero.
Of course, a positive growth rate
might be taken as evidence that a population is below its optimum. However,
by any reasonable standards, the most
rapidly growing populations on earth
today are (in general) the most miserable. This association (which need not be
invariable) casts doubt on the optimistic
assumption that the positive growth rate
of a population is evidence that it has
yet to reach its optimum.
We can make little progress in working toward optimum poulation size until
we explicitly exorcize the spirit of
Adam Smith in the field of practical
demography. In economic affairs, The
Wealth of Nations (1776) popularized
the “invisible hand,” the idea that an
individual who “intends only his own
gain,” is, as it were, “led by an invisible
hand to promote . .,. the public interest”
(5). Adam Smith did not assert that
this was invariably true, and perhaps
neither did any of his followers. But he
contributed to a dominant tendency of
thought that has ever since interfered
with positive action based on rational
analysis, namely, the tendency to assume that decisions reached individually
will, in fact, be the best decisions for an
entire society. If this assumption is
correct it justifies the continuance of
our present policy of laissez-faire in
reproduction. If it is correct we can assume that men will control their individual fecundity so as to produce the optimum population. If the assumption is
not correct, we need to reexamine our
individual freedoms to see which ones
Tragedy of Freedom in a Commons
The rebuttal to the invisible hand in
population control is to be found in a
scenario first sketched in a little-known
pamphlet (6) in 1833 by a mathematical
amateur named William Forster Lloyd
(1794-1852). We may well call it “the
tragedy of the commons,” using the
word “tragedy” as the philosopher
Whitehead used it (7): “The essence of
dramatic tragedy is not unhappiness. It
resides in the solemnity of the remorseless working of things.” He then’ goes on.
to say, “This inevitableness of destiny
can only be illustrated in terms of human life by incidents which in fact involve unhappiness. For it is only by
them that the futility of escape can be
made evident in the drama.”
The tragedy of the commons develops
in this way. Picture a pasture open to
all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as
possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal
wars, poaching, and disease keep the
numbers of both man and beast well
below the carrying capacity of the land.
Finally, however, comes the day of
reckoning, that is, the day when the
long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.
As a rational being, each herdsman
seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly
or implicitly, more or less consciously,
he asks, “What is the utility to me of
adding one more animal to my herd?”
This utility has one negative and one
1) The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal.
Since the herdsman receives all the
proceeds from the sale of the additional
animal, the positive utility is nearly +1.
2) The negative component is a function of the additional overgrazing
created by one more animal. Since,
however, the effects of overgrazing are
shared by all the herdsmen, the negative
utility for any particular decisionmaking herdsman is only a fraction of
Adding together the component partial utilities, the rational herdsman
concludes that the only sensible course
for him to pursue is to add another
animal to his herd. And another; and
another…. But this is the conclusion
reached by each and every rational
herdsman sharing a commons. Therein
is the tragedy. Each man is locked into
a system that compels him to increase
his herd without limit-in a world that
is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing
his own best interest in a society that
believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings
ruin to all.
Some would say that this is a platitude. Would that it were! In a sense, it
was learned thousands of years ago, but
natural selection favors the forces of
psychological denial (8). The individual
benefits as an individual from his ability
to deny the truth even though society as
a whole, of which he is a part, suffers.
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Education can counteract the natural
tendency to do the wrong thing, but the
inexorable succession of generations
requires that the basis for this knowledge be constantly refreshed.
A simple incident that occurred a few
years ago in Leominster, Massachusetts,
shows how perishable the knowledge is.
During the Christmas shopping season
the parking meters downtown were
covered with plastic bags that bore tags
reading: “Do not open until after Christmas. Free parking courtesy of the
mayor and city council.” In other words,
facing the prospect of an increased demand for already scarce space, the city
fathers reinstituted the system of the
commons. (Cynically, we suspect that
they gained more votes than they lost
by this retrogressive act.)
In an approximate way, the logic of
the commons has been understood for
a long time, perhaps since the discovery of agriculture or the invention
of private property in real estate. But
it is understood mostly only in special
cases which are not sufficiently generalized. Even at this late date, cattlemen
leasing national land on the western
ranges demonstrate no more than an
ambivalent understanding, in constantly
pressuring federal authorities to increase
the head count to the point where overgrazing produces erosion and weeddominance. Likewise, the oceans of the
world continue to suffer from the survival of the philosophy of the commons.
Maritime nations still respond automatically to the shibboleth of the “freedom
of the seas.” Professing to believe in
the “inexhaustible resources of the
oceans,” they bring species after species
of fish and whales closer to extinction
The National Parks present another
instance of the working out of the
tragedy of the commons. At present,
they are open to all, without limit. The
parks themselves are limited in extentthere is only one Yosemite Valleywhereas population seems to grow without limit. The values that visitors seek
in the parks are steadily eroded. Plainly,
we must soon cease to treat the parks
as commons or they will be of no value
What shall we do? We have several
options. We might sell them off as private property. We might keep them as
public property, but allocate the right
to enter them. The allocation might be
on the basis of wealth, by the use of an
auction system. It might be on the basis
of merit, as defined by some agreed13 DECEMBER 1968
upon standards. It might be by lottery.
Or it might be on a first-come, firstserved basis, administered to long
queues. These, I think, are all the
reasonable possibilities. They are all
objectionable. But we must choose-or
acquiesce in the destruction of the commons that we call our National Parks.
In a reverse way, the tragedy of
the commons reappears in problems of
pollution. Here it is not a question of
taking something out of the commons,
but of putting something in-sewage,
or chemical, radioactive, and heat
wastes into water; noxious and dangerous fumes into the air; and distracting
and unpleasant advertising signs into
the line of sight. The calculations of
utility are much the same as before.
The rational man finds that his share of
the cost of the wastes he discharges into
the commons is less than the cost of
purifying his wastes before releasing
them. Since this is true for everyone, we
are locked into a system of “fouling our
own nest,” so long as we behave only
as independent, rational, free-enterprisers.
The tragedy of the commons as a
food basket is averted by private property, or something formally like it. But
the air and waters surrounding us cannot readily be fenced, and so the tragedy of the commons as a cesspool must
be prevented by different means, by coercive laws or taxing devices that make
it cheaper for the polluter to treat his
pollutants than to discharge them untreated. We have not progressed as far
with the solution of this problem as we
have with the first. Indeed, our particular concept of private property, which
deters us from exhausting the positive
resources of the earth, favors pollution.
The owner of a factory on the bank of
a stream-whose property extends to
the middle of the stream-often has
difficulty seeing why it is not his natural
right to muddy the waters flowing past
his door. The law, always behind the
times, requires elaborate stitching and
fitting to adapt it to this newly perceived
aspect of the commons.
The pollution problem is a consequence of population. It did not much
matter how a lonely American frontiersman disposed of his waste. “Flowing
water purifies itself every 10 miles,” my
grandfather used to say, and the myth
was near enough to the truth when he
was a boy, for there were not too many
people. But as population became denser,
the natural chemical and biological recycling processes became overloaded,
calling for a redefinition of property
How To Legislate Temperance?
Analysis of the pollution problem as
a function of population density uncovers a not generally recognized principle of morality, namely: the morality
of an act is a function of the state of
the system at the time it is performed
(10). Using the commons as a cesspool
does not harm the general public under
frontier conditions, because there is no
public; the same behavior in a metropolis is unbearable. A hundred and fifty
years ago a plainsman could kill an
American bison, cut out only the tongue
for his dinner, and discard the rest of
the animal. He was not in any important sense being wasteful. Today, with
only a few thousand bison left, we
would be appalled at such behavior.
In passing, it is worth noting that the
morality of an act cannot be determined
from a photograph. One does not know
whether a man killing an elephant or
setting flre to the grassland is harming
others until one knows the total system
in which his act appears. “One picture
is worth a thousand words,” said an
ancient Chinese; but it may take 10,000
words to validate it. It is as tempting to
ecologists as it is to reformers in general
to try to persuade others by way of the
photographic shortcut. But the essense
of an argument cannot be photographed: it must be presented rationally
That morality is system-sensitive
escaped the attention of most codifiers
of ethics in the past. “Thou shalt
not . . .” is the form of traditional
ethical directives which make no allowance for particular circumstances. The
laws of our society follow the pattern of
ancient ethics, and therefore are poorly
suited to governing a complex, crowded,
changeable world. Our epicyclic solution is to augment statutory law with
administrative law. Since it is practically
impossible to spell out all the conditions
under which it is safe to burn trash in
the back yard or to run an automobile
without smog-control, by law we delegate the details to bureaus. The result
is administrative law, which is rightly
feared for an ancient reason-Quis
custodiet ipsos custodes?-“Who shall
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watch the watchers themselves?” John
Adams said that we must have “a government of laws and not men.” Bureau
administrators, trying to evaluate the
morality of acts in the total system, are
singularly liable to corruption, producing a government by men, not laws.
Prohibition is easy to legislate
(though not necessarily to enforce); but
how do we legislate temperance? Experience indicates that it can be accomplished best through the mediation
of administrative law. We limit possibilities unnecessarily if we suppose that
the sentiment of Quis custodiet denies
us the use of administrative law. We
should rather retain the phrase as a
perpetual reminder of fearful dangers
we cannot avoid. The great challenge
facing us now is to invent the corrective
feedbacks that are needed to keep custodians honest. We must find ways to
legitimate the needed authority of both
the custodians and the corrective feedbacks.
Freedom To Breed Is Intolerable
The tragedy of the commons is involved in population problems in another way. In a world governed solely
by the principle of “dog eat dog”-if
indeed there ever was such a worldhow many children a family had would
not be a matter of public concern.
Parents who bred too exuberantly would
leave fewer descendants, not more, because they would be unable to care
adequately for their children. David
Lack and others have found that such a
negative feedback demonstrably controls the fecundity of birds (11). But
men are not birds, and have not acted
like them for millenniums, at least.
If each human family were dependent only on its own resources; if the
children of improvident parents starved
to death; if, thus, overbreeding brought
its own “punishment” to the germ linethen there would be no public interest
in controlling the breeding of families.
But our society is deeply committed to
the welfare state (12), and hence is
confronted with another aspect of the
tragedy of the commons.
In a welfare state, how shall we deal
with the family, the religion, the race,
or the class (or indeed any distinguishable and cohesive group) that adopts
overbreeding as a policy to secure its
own aggrandizement (13)? To couple
the concept of freedom to breed with
the belief that everyone born has an
equal right to the commons is to lock
the world into a tragic course of action.
Unfortunately this is just the course
of action that is being pursued by the
United Nations. In late 1967, some 30
nations agreed to the following (14):
The Universal Declaration of Human
Rights describes the family as the natural
and fundamental unit of society. It follows that any choice and decision with
regard to the size of the family must irtevocably rest with the family itself, and
cannot be made by anyone else.
It is painful to have to deny categorically the validity of this right; denying
it, one feels as uncomfortable as a resident of Salem, Massachusetts, who
denied the reality of witches in the 17th
century. At the present time, in liberal
quarters, something like a taboo acts to
inhibit criticism of the United Nations.
There is a feeling that the United
Nations is “our last and best hope,”
that we shouldn’t find fault with it; we
shouldn’t play into the hands of the
archconservatives. However, let us not
forget what Robert Louis Stevenson
said: “The truth that is suppressed by
friends is the readiest weapon of the
enemy.” If we love the truth we must
openly deny the validity of the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights, even
though it is promoted by the United
Nations. We should also join with
Kingsley Davis (15) in attempting to
get Planned Parenthood-World Population to see the error of its ways in embracing the same tragic ideal.
Conscience Is Self-Eliminating
It is a mistake to think that we can
control the breeding of mankind in the
long run by an appeal to conscience.
Charles Galton Darwin made this point
when he spoke on the centennial of the
publication of his grandfather’s great
book. The argument is straightforward
People vary. Confronted with appeals
to limit breeding, some people will undoubtedly respond to the plea more
than others. Those who have more
children will produce a larger fraction
of the next generation than those with
more susceptible consciences. The difference will be accentuated, generation
In C. G. Darwin’s words: “It may
well be that it would take hundreds of
generations for the progenitive instinct
to develop in this way, but if it should
do so, nature would have taken her
revenge, and the variety Homo contracipiens would become extinct and
would be replaced by the variety Homo
The argument assumes that conscience or the desire for children (no
matter which) is hereditary-but hereditary only in the most general formal
sense. The result will be the same
whether the attitude is transmitted
through germ cells, or exosomatically,
to use A. J. Lotka’s term. (If one denies
the latter possibility as well as the
former, then what’s the point of education?) The argument has here been
stated in the context of the population
problem, but it applies equally well to
any instance in which society appeals
to an individual exploiting a commons
to restrain himself for the general
good-by means of his conscience. To
make such an appeal is to set up a
selective system that works toward the
elimination of conscience from the race.
Pathogenic Effects of Conscience
The long-term disadvantage of an
appeal to conscience should be enough
to condemn it; but has serious shortterm disadvantages as well. If we ask
a man who is exploiting a commons to
desist “in the name of conscience,”
what are we saying to him? What does
he hear?-not only at the moment but
also in the wee small hours of the
night when, half asleep, he remembers
not merely the words we used but also
the nonverbal communication cues we
gave him unawares? Sooner or later,
consciously or subconsciously, he senses
that he has received two communications, and that they are contradictory:
(i) (intended communication) “If you
don’t do as we ask, we will openly condemn you for not acting like a responsible citizen”; (ii) (the unintended
communication) “If you do behave as
we ask, we will secretly condemr. you
for a simpleton who can be shamed
into standing aside while the rest of us
exploit the commons.”
Everyman then is caught in what
Bateson has called a “double bind.”
Bateson and his co-workers have made
a plausible case for viewing the double
bind as an important causative factor in
the genesis of schizophrenia (17). The
double bind may not always be so
damaging, but it always endangers the
mental health of anyone to whom it is
applied. “A bad conscience,” said
Nietzsche, “is a kind of illness.”
To conjure up a conscience in others
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is tempting to anyone who wishes to
extend his control beyond the legal
limits. Leaders at the highest level
succumb to this temptation. Has any
President during the past generation
failed to call on labor unions to moderate voluntarily their demands for higher
wages, or to steel companies to honor
voluntary guidelines on prices? I can
recall none. The rhetoric used on such
occasions is designed to produce feelings of guilt in noncooperators.
For centuries it was assumed without
proof that guilt was a valuable, perhaps
even an indispensable, ingredient of the
civilized life. Now, in this post-Freudian
world, we doubt it.
Paul Goodman speaks from the
modern point of view when he says:
“No good has ever come from feeling
guilty, neither intelligence, policy, nor
compassion. The guilty do not pay
attention to the object but only to themselves, and not even to their own interests, which might make sense, but to
their anxieties” (18).
One does not have to be a professional psychiatrist to see the consequences of anxiety. We in the Western
world are just emerging from a dreadful
two-centuries-long Dark Ages of Eros
that was sustained partly by prohibition laws, but perhaps more effectively
by the anxiety-generating mechanisms
of education. Alex Comfort has told the
story well in The Anxiety Makers (19);
it is not a pretty one.
Since proof is difficult, we may even
concede that the results of anxiety may
sometimes, from certain points of view,
be desirable. The larger question we
should ask is whether, as a matter of
policy, we should ever encourage the
use of a technique the tendency (if not
the intention) of which is psychologically pathogenic. We hear much talk
these days of responsible parenthood;
the coupled words are incorporated
into the titles of some organizations devoted to birth control. Some people
have proposed massive propaganda
campaigns to instill responsibility into
the nation’s (or the world’s) breeders.
But what is the meaning of the word
responsibility in this context? Is it not
merely a synonym for the word conscience? When we use the word responsibility in the absence of substantial
sanctions are we not trying to browbeat
a free man in a commons into acting
against his own interest? Responsibility
is a verbal counterfeit for a substantial
quid pro quo. It is an attempt to get
something for nothing.
13 DECEMBER 1968
If the word responsibility is to be
used at all, I suggest that it be in the
sense Charles Frankel uses it (20).
“Responsibility,” says this philosopher,
“is the product of definite social arrangements.” Notice that Frankel calls
for social arrangements-not propaganda.
Mutually Agreed upon
The social arrangements that produce
responsibility are arrangements that
create coercion, of some sort. Consider bank-robbing. The man who takes
money from a bank acts as if the bank
were a commons. How do we prevent
such action? Certainly not by trying to
control his behavior solely by a verbal
appeal to his sense of responsibility.
Rather than rely on propaganda we
follow Frankel’s lead and insist that a
bank is not a commons; we seek the
definite social arrangements that will
keep it from becoming a commons.
That we thereby infringe on the freedom of would-be robbers we neither
deny nor regret.
The morality of bank-robbing is
particularly easy to understand because
we accept complete prohibition of this
activity. We are willing to say “Thou
shalt not rob banks,” without providing
for exceptions. But temperance also can
be created by coercion. Taxing is a good
coercive device. To keep downtown
shoppers temperate in their use of
parking space we introduce parking
meters for short periods, and traffic
fines for longer ones. We need not
actually forbid a citizen to park as long
as he wants to; we need merely make it
increasingly expensive for him to do so.
Not prohibition, but carefully biased
options are what we offer him. A Madison Avenue man might call this persuasion; I prefer the greater candor of
the word coercion.
Coercion is a dirty word to most
liberals now, but it need not forever be
so. As with the four-letter words, its
dirtiness can be cleansed away by exposure to the light, by saying it over and
over without apology or embarrassment.
To many, the word coercion implies
arbitrary decisions of distant and irresponsible bureaucrats; but this is not a
necessary part of its meaning. The only
kind of coercion I recommend is mutual
coercion, mutually agreed upon by the
majority of the people affected.
To say that we mutually agree to
coercion is not to say that we are required to enjoy it, or even to pretend
we enjoy it. Who enjoys taxes? We all
grumble about them. But we accept
compulsory taxes because we recognize
that voluntary taxes would favor the
conscienceless. We institute and (grumblingly) support taxes and other coercive
devices to escape the horror of the
An alternative to the commons need
not be perfectly just to be preferable.
With real estate and other material
goods, the alternative we have chosen
is the institution of private property
coupled with legal inheritance. Is this
system perfectly just? As a genetically
trained biologist I deny that it is. It
seems to me that, if there are to be differences in individual inheritance, legal
possession should be perfectly correlated with biological inheritance-that
those who are biologically more fit to
be the custodians of property and power
should legally inherit more. But genetic
recombination continually makes a
mockery of the doctrine of “like father,
like son” implicit in our laws of legal inheritance. An idiot can inherit millions,
and a trust fund can keep his estate
intact. We must admit that our legal
system of private property plus inheritance is unjust-but we put up with it
because we are not convinced, at the
moment, that anyone has invented a
better system. The alternative of the
commons is too horrifying to contemplate. Injustice is preferable to total
It is one of the peculiarities of the
warfare between reform and the status
quo that it is thoughtlessly governed
by a double standard. Whenever a reform measure is proposed it is often
defeated when its opponents triumphantly discover a flaw in it. As Kingsley Davis has pointed out (21), worshippers of the status quo sometimes imply
that no reform is possible without unanimous agreement, an implication contrary to historical fact. As nearly as I
can make out, automatic rejection of
proposed reforms is based on one of
two unconscious assumptions: (i) that
the status quo is perfect; or (ii) that the
choice we face is between reform and
no action; if the proposed reform is
imperfect, we presumably should take
no action at all, while we wait for a
But we can never do nothing. That
which we have done for thousands of
years is also action. It also produces
evils. Once we are aware that the
on October 13, 2016 http://science.sciencemag.org/ Downloaded from
status quo is action, we can then compare its discoverable advantages and
disadvantages with the predicted advantages and disadvantages of the proposed reform, discounting as best we
can for our lack of experience. On the
basis of such a comparison, we can
make a rational decision which will not
involve the unworkable assumption that
only perfect systems are tolerable.
Recognition of Necessity
Perhaps the simplest summary of this
analysis of man’s population problems
is this: the commons, if justifiable at
all, is justifiable only under conditions
of low-population density. As the human population has increased, the
commons has had to be abandoned in
one aspect after another.
First we abandoned the commons in
food gathering, enclosing farm land
and restricting pastures and hunting
and fishing areas. These restrictions
are still not complete throughout the
Somewhat later we saw that the commons as a place for waste disposal
would also have to be abandoned. Restrictions on the disposal of domestic
sewage are widely accepted in the
Western world; we are still struggling
to close the commons to pollution by
automobiles, factories, insecticide
sprayers, fertilizing operations, and
atomic energy installations.
In a still more embryonic state is our
recognition of the evils of the commons
in matters of pleasure. There is almost
no restriction on the propagation of
sound waves in the public medium. The
shopping public is assaulted with mindless music, without its consent. Our
government is paying out billions of
dollars to create supersonic transport
which will disturb 50,000 people for
every one person who is whisked from
coast to coast 3 hours faster. Advertisers muddy the airwaves of radio and
television and pollute the view of
travelers. We are a long way from outlawing the commons in matters of
pleasure. Is this because our Puritan
inheritance makes us view pleasure as
something of a sin, and pain (that is,
the pollution of advertising) as the sign
Every new enclosure of the commons involves the infringement of
somebody’s personal liberty. Infringements made in the distant past are accepted because no contemporary complains of a loss. It is the newly proposed infringements that we vigorously
oppose; cries of “rights” and “freedom”
fill the air. But what does “freedom”
mean? When men mutually agreed to
pass laws against robbing, mankind became more free, not less so. Individuals
locked into the logic of the commons
are free only to bring on universal ruin;
once they see the necessity of mutual
coercion, they become free to pursue
other goals. I believe it was Hegel who
said, “Freedom is the recognition of
The most important aspect of necessity that we must now recognize, is the
necessity of abandoning the commons
in breeding. No technical solution can
rescue us from the misery of overpopulation. Freedom to breed will bring
ruin to all. At the moment, to avoid
hard decisions many of us are tempted
to propagandize for conscience and
responsible parenthood. The temptation must be resisted, because an appeal to independently acting consciences selects for the disappearance
of all conscience in the long run, and
anin,crease in anxiety in the short.
The only way we can preserve and
nurture other and more precious freedoms is by relinquishing the freedom
to breed, and that very soon. “Freedom
is the recognition of necessity”-and it
is the role of education to reveal to all
the necessity of abandoning the freedom to breed. Only so, can we put an
end to this aspect of the tragedy of the
1. J. B. Wiesner and H. F. York, Sci. Amer.
211 (No. 4), 27 (1964).
2. G. Hardin, J. Hered. 50, 68 (1959); S. von
Hoernor, Science 137, 18 (1962).
3. J. von Neumann and 0. Morgenstern, Theory
of Games and Economic Behavior (Princeton
Univ. Press, Princeton, N.J., 1947), p. 11.
4. J. H. Fremlin, New Sci., No. 415 (1964), p. 285.
5. A. Smith, The Wealth of Nations (Modem
Library, New York, 1937), p. 423.
6. W. F. Lloyd, Two Lectures on the Checks to
Population (Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, England, 1833), reprinted (in part> in Population,
Evolution, and Birth Control, G. Hardin,
Ed. (Freeman, San Francisco, 1964), p. 37.
7. A. N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern
World (Mentor, New York, 1948), p. 17.
8. G. Hardin, Ed. Population, Evolution, and
Birth Control (Freeman, San Francisco, 1964),
9. S. McVay, Sci. Amer. 216 (No. 8>, 13 (1966).
10. J. Fletcher, Situation Ethics (Westminster,
11. D. Lack, The Natural Regulation of Animal
Nuimbers (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1954).
12. H. Girvetz, From Wealth to Welfare (Stanford Univ. Press, Stanford, Calif., 1950).
13. G. Hardin, Perspec. Biol. Med. 6, 366 (1963).
14. U. Thant, Int. Planned Parenthood News, No.
168 (February 1968>, p. 3.
15. K. Davis, Science 158, 730 (1967).
16. S. Tax, Ed., Evolution after Darwin (Univ.
of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1960), vol. 2, p.
17. G. Bateson, D. D. Jackson, J. Haley, J. Weakland, Behav. Scd. 1, 251 (1956).
18. P. Goodman, New York Rev. Books 10(8),
22 (23 May 1968).
19. A. Comfort, The Anxiety Makers (Nelson,
20. C. Frankel, The Case for Modern Man (Harper, New York, 1955), p. 203.
21. J. D. Roslansky, Genetics and the Future of
Man (Appleton-Century-Crofts, New York,
1966), p. 177.
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Science 162 (3859), 1243-1248. [doi:
Garrett Hardin (December 13, 1968)
The Tragedy of the Commons
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