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Hardin: The tragedy of the commons

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Hardin. 1968. The tragedy of the commons. Science 162: 1243-48.

In Brief

A morally questionable argument against the freedom to "breed." Hardin takes as a truthful premise Malthus's (perhaps discredited) concern that population is growing exponentially as resources grow only finitely. Applying the idea of the commons, he argues that our use of "breeding rights" is a common good, and that those who overuse their right to breed are driving us toward extinction.

Moreover, these breeders will drive people with a "conscience" out of the gene pool, since anybody with a conscience will recognize his responsibility not to overuse the commons (and will therefore not breed, leaving only large families on earth).

Thus, the only solution is to recognize that "breeding" is not a freedom or right. When society decided that robbery was not a right, we all became more free; similarly, using government administrative powers to regulate individual family decisions will make us all more free.

Comments and Criticism

From a purely economic point of view (leaving aside moral questions about this argument), his most glaring error is his argument that laissez faire economics won't create incentives for smaller families. Even by 1968, it should have been apparent that urban families were not bearing as many children as farm families had. Today, there is a commonly heard argument that parents in developed countries chose to have fewer children because children are costly, whereas parents in underdeveloped countries want children because they provide benefits (social security). According to this argument, this explains why Europe (and the US, if you don't count recent immigrants) has near-zero growth rates.

At the same time, concerns have grown about the problems raised by Europe's non-growth. Is this evidence that Hardin is wrong, or are Europe's economic problems merely transactions costs accompanying a shift to a new equilibrium?