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[pre-edit: i’ll be updating this post as soon as i go back home (or in a few weeks ;-) with links and references, but the gist of the argument should be clear.]

It is tragic how economy always begins with a brilliant display of how its issues are more complex than they appear, not only saying money isn’t everything but showing exactly how not, just to, few paragraphs in, grossly simplify everything into money. One of those mistakes is the so-called “Tragedy of the Commons”, whereby economists seem to prove that private property is needed for society to work. The detail always lacking is that this tragedy only happens when you mix private with non-private: The commons by themselves do just fine.

Precisely, the tragedy is a fable whereby shepperds can either put their sheep to graze on the common grounds, the grounds that are not owned by anyone, or use their own land. It gets more drama because some of the shepperds depend on the commons to live. The problem is that the common grounds end up barren from over-grazing. The usual explanation is that the individual shepperd has no incentive to use the common grounds economically. Even if he does not exploit it excessively, the ground will still get over-used, so he might as well use it while it lasts. And since everyone has the same limited perspective on the matter, even if it is in everyone’s best interest to preserve the grounds, nobody can do it.

The reason i call it a fable is that every single time the same thing happened there was some more detail to the story. We never hear what the peasants said about the issue, what happened to that guy who had no way to feed his animals, or if there was prayer for better weather. It’s just an abstraction.

The problem is that this abstraction hides the fact that for ages there was not even a concept of “private” grounds. Land wasn’t conceived to belong to a person, it wasn’t something you could own. Thus we know that life without private property did work.

The idea of treating land as property could only develop slowly — and somewhat mischievously. At first the depositaries of land were only entitled to protect their crops, but after harvest those same crops became food for sheep. From that to walling off the land a long legal battle was fought.

Disregarding the fact that this battle happened to the small-guy’s harm, we must understand that, indeed, it is likely that growing population concentration would raise more and more disputes over land use. Which means that there was a need for better coordination between sheppards and planters and society at large.

Why private property should be the only way to do so remains purely an issue of faith — economists believe it, and will treat anyone saying otherwise as either a moron or anathema.

Certainly, the left has their fables too, something to do with nature finding balance by itself, and that is as unbelievable as the “tragedy”.

That this type of folklore is expressed in contemporary terms does not make it any less folkloric. And though i do take folklore to be accumulated wisdom about stable trends and practices, our world is rapidly coming into contact with new trends that demand new practices.

Posted by Wordmobi


One Comment

  1. You certainly meant austrian economists; not economists-idiots. Thank you for that not mentioning in your article. To my point: I guess, it is better if YOU own partially someone else’s land. Hence YOU do not want MY private ownership. There is only Q amount of “ownership units” or “control units” over certain thing or area and “private ownership” means thah one controls 100% of a thing. Ie not like a common highways where I can use them, a worker can clean them, police man can tax them and buerocrat can decide the timing of these operations… and state ends with revenue. That’s not exclusive ownership. The argument is 2500 years old and states: if there should not be private ownership, WHO is gonna own (= make decisions about) the part of your things/lands which you don’t own. Answer can be only that there is some other person. This is usually person who owns also many other people things, so it’s power is greater but on the expense of the common folk. That person wields power which it doesn’t earn, ie it’s power is unjust.

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