Libertarianism versus the commons

July 4, 2012

 A friend of a friend had begged a ride to the Twin Cities from Beth and Trish, who were driving to a wedding in Chicago.

Beth was keeping her eyes moving, alert to what was happening 15 seconds down the interstate, maintaining a three-second interval with the car ahead, while the passenger was spinning a political monologue punctuated by driving instructions.

“I’m comfortable with you two being a couple. I’m a libertarian. Most lesbians are socialists, but they really ought to be libertarians— You can squeeze around this idiot if you goose it! missed your chance...Libertarianism recognizes that each person has to make their own choices based on an objective understanding of the world. It’s really the only hope for peace because I won’t force you to go against your understanding and your operating strategy— Get over in the left lane! You blew it...”

At Hinckley, an Audi sped into traffic and hovered briefly on Beth’s rear bumper. It pulled into the left lane, drafted behind a pickup, passed the truck on the right, and whipped back into the left lane.

The passenger was saying that human ingenuity could feed the world, but for regulation and taxes. “The tragedy of the commons is that nobody cares for what is shared because nobody owns it.”

Beth said, “I didn’t know you’d read Garrett Hardin,” and the passenger, pausing to admire the Audi, which sped out of sight, asked, “Who?”

“Garrett Hardin. An ecologist who wrote an essay called ‘The Tragedy of the Commons.’ He was talking about population, but his metaphor works for other things—fisheries, pollution, and so on.

“Hardin’s metaphor is a village pasture where each family grazes livestock. The pasture, or commons, can support a certain number of livestock. Divide that by the number of families and you know how many animals each family gets to raise.

“But some shrewd husband may get the idea that the commons will support one more animal—his. Then the next family gets the same idea and they overgraze the commons until they can’t raise any stock at all.

“We need to figure out the planet’s capacity for people and compel each other to limit the number of children each family produces to its share of the carrying capacity.”

“Sounds like Red China. One child per family. Forced abortions. You want the government in your bedroom?”

“I think it already is.”

“There you go. Homosexuality used to be a crime and now it isn’t.”

“I don't think it’s government so much as well-organized busybodies that want Trish and me to quit having sex.”


Beth smooched the air at Trish, who stuck out her tongue suggestively. The passenger looked away. “How many kids did Hardin have?”


“Hypocrite. If he thought there was a problem, he should have stopped at two.”

“Maybe not. Hardin was born in 1915. Four kids was not an outlandish number for that generation.”

Traffic stopped at Forest Lake and a highway patrol car passed them on the shoulder with lights and siren blazing. “There must have been an accident,” the passenger said. “I hate the way traffic slows down to gawk. What is there to see? Just drive. Keep your eyes on the road.”

This injunction to pay attention was more to himself than to Beth, who was maintaining a decent interval. “Look, this Garrett Hardin must have been a socialist. State control never works.”
“I don’t know for sure what Hardin was, but he said we could survive under either socialism or private ownership of the commons. You said nobody cares for something nobody owns, but maybe collective owners could negotiate proper care of the Earth. The point, though, is that individual interests aren’t identical to the collective interest.

“With world population at seven billion, with potentially toxic technology coming online more quickly than we can evaluate it, with resources exhausted or stretched to their limits, civilization—if not the whole human species—is at risk.

“Somebody has to say no. Do you want it to be the zillionaires who are paying for the public relations campaign promoting libertarianism? Or do you want to negotiate with the rest of the planet?”

“That would be impossible.”

“Then let’s put the corporations and the rich officially in charge. If the world belongs to them, they’ll make us do what it takes to survive. They’ll pull some of their subjects through the crisis. Famine, disease, pollution, industry and service failures...those are profound restrictions of liberty. Each of us will wind up freer if, one way or another, we restrict the individual liberty to abuse our environment.”

Beth took the ramp to 35W and they passed an accident at the point where the ramp straightens out. The Audi was crumpled and upside down, across the ditch from a totaled Escalade and an L-shaped Mustang. There was a flicker of blue from an ambulance in the distance.

Please reload

More from this Author

Archives by Date

Please reload

Archives by Title or Author