Part 4 of 4: Mutual Coercion Mutually Agreed Upon

The late Garrett Hardin, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Human Ecology in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara presented "The Tragedy of the Commons" as an address to the Pacific Division of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. [1]

As social observers, we read and watch on TV the constant symptoms of our tragedy expressed daily in a variety of ways across the American landscape. Water shortages face California, but that state adds 1,700 people daily on its way to adding 20 million people in 30 years! A pharmacist in a small town shoots a robber with five added bullets. A 29 year old man fathers 21 children by 11 women. One woman, in Detroit, Michigan, birthed 24 children with countless men, but enjoyed Aid to Dependent Children checks for each added child. Three of her girls, upon reaching 15 years of age, birthed children of their own. AIDs victims in Washington, DC equals per capital AIDS in Africa.

As you can see, it’s all more than a little bit crazy, so much so, a rational thinking person cannot grasp the realities in all their facets of Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons.”

“The social arrangements that produce responsibility are arrangements that create coercion, of some sort,” Hardin said. “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.

“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 to 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. 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 support taxes and other coercive devices to escape the horrors of the commons.

“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.

Recognition of Necessity

Hardin said, “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 world.

“Somewhat later we saw that the commons as a place for waste disposal would 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 fifty thousand people for every one person who is whisked from coast to coast three 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.

“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 freer, 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 necessity."

“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 an increase 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 commons.”

Since Hardin wrote the “Tragedy of the Commons” in 1968, humans added another three billion to the planet. The U.S. added 100 million people. Projections show an added three billion more added by 2050 and another 100 million to the USA. Few blink or swallow at our dilemma. Most Americans dodge, duck or avoid the population equation at every juncture—even as they watch its accelerating ‘symptoms’ in this country and worldwide. Organizations feature Green Revolution, alternative energy, mass transit and conservation—but they won’t touch hyper-population growth.

You must wonder why a sane man would walk onto a railroad track to discover a train headed in his direction, but he turns around and walks the other way so he won’t see it when that locomotive runs over him. As intelligent at the United States purports to be, it follows in the same footsteps of China, Mexico, Pakistan and India—horrific population overload.

I am waiting for a rational U.S. Senator or even President Obama to introduce a bill that addresses the future: “US Sustainable Population Policy.” What does that mean? First of all, since 1970, the average woman birthed 2.03 children for a stable population. What grew us by 100 million in 40 years? Immigration! Therefore, we need to reduce all forms of immigration to 100,000 annually. Why? That’s how many egress the country annually. That would allow a net zero gain to stabilize America toward a sustainable future.

Without it, that population train along with the Tragedy of the Commons bears down on us with accelerating speed.

[1] – He copyrighted it by the AAAS, Science, 13 December 1968, vol. 162, pp. 1243-48. (, fall 2001, Tragedy of the Commons, Garrett Hardin)


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