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liberty is the recognition of want

December 13, 2008

Brian reminded me some time ago that today is the 40th Anniversary of the publication in Science of The Tragedy of the Commons . The article explains how a group of herders sharing a common grazing area can destroy it by acting in their personal self interest. The more cattle you put on the commons the better off you are, but you bring on the destruction of the resource. Now that is a crude summary of a power argument, but the lesson obtains today in terms of the current financial crisis, not to mention global warming. The latter point being made strongly in Hardin’s original essay. The title of this posting is a quote from Hegel/Engels used in the article.

Now to some controversy. My argument when I read the article several decades ago in a different time and place, was that the human response to the commons historically has been enclosure and feudalism. I see no reason to change that judgement; in a world of increasing resource restriction it is the most likely model that will emerge. I would also argue that you already see its early modern form in multi-nationals. CEOs have the absolute power of medieval monarchs, Vice Presidents mange their estates and occasional unite to overthrow the King. Serfs (contractors) and Freemen (tenured employees) all have their role and there are even incidents of droit du seigneur. Countries and international bodies have a similar role to that the Papacy.

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