Tragedy of the commons

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It seems we always get these dire warnings, about how we need government to protect us, and one of the many fallacies is used to justify it. Here’s a little history of those fallacies.

Malthusian Catastrophe

In 1798, this guy named Robert Malthus (1) wrote, An Essay on the Principle of Population (2), basically saying that since population growth was exceeding food production, our labor value would crash to zero, we’d all be poor and we were all going to die in 50 or 100 years (Malthusian Catastrophe), if we didn’t give the government control over our breeding. (Also we needed to “condemn the bad specimens to celibacy”). Hey, he must be right, he used math.

We ignored Malthus, and he was wrong about everything. The world not only didn’t go into meltdown by 1898 (or ever couple generations after that): it got better in every dimension along with population growth. But his ideas long outlived the era where they were proven wrong, and were often repeated by the the left like Keynes, or to this day.

Every time one the collectivist ideas fail (which is always), they try to repackage it (reinvent it), to sell the next gullible on the same bullshit. And this zombie has more lives than a cattery. But all the variants have a few things in common, their premise (humans can't control themselves and need government), their proposed solution (giving up our liberty/money to government to fix it), the outcome if we didn’t act (our near term violent demise, to add immediacy), and then finally — the unwillingness of the rational to heed their warnings, and then the complete lack of consequences that were predicted (proving that they were wrong all along).

Tragedy of the Commons

In 1833 William Forster Lloyd (economist) regurgitated it n an essay called "the tragedy of the commons” (TOC), writing on the effects of unregulated grazing on common land in England (4). Only it wasn’t taken seriously at the time, because this hadn’t ever been a problem for 700 years. He was ignored, and society continued to evolve and get better.

The Prisoners Dilemma

In 1950 Flood and Dresher borrowed the idea of "failure to cooperate” and created something for Game Theory called the Prisoners Dilemma (5). It was the cop interrogation technique where the guy that talks first gets a reduced sentence (but if they both talk, neither gets the deal). If they both shut-up, they win, but since they don’t know what the other guy will do, they often talk first (to save themselves).

But that’s the key to why tragedy of the commons never happens in the real world. If they can communicate, they can make a deal in their mutual interest. But if they’re isolated, they can not, and will do the wrong thing. Which is why England (and most places) never had problems with “commons”. In fact, quite the opposite. They managed those commons better than Government (and in many more ways): they just negotiate/share and things usually worked out for the best. The times that you get TOC problems is when government steps in, and gets between the parties (often using anti-Collusion or Anti-Trust laws to prevent cooperation and communication), then things went to shit.

This irony is important. It means that the collectivists that use the TOC (or any variants), don’t realize that it’s not only false, but that it’s some of the greatest evidence against their very ideals. Luckily for them, most of their followers aren’t fully aware of the history and facts, so the argument works in spite of all the evidence against it.

Peak Oil Theory

In the mid 50’s M King Hubbert plotted out oil production, and said we would peak in the U.S. between 1965 and 1970, and in the world by 1986, so we needed to give government control to save us. He was celebrated by the naive when oil production seemed to slow down in the U.S. in the 70’s. But they failed to recognize that was just because it was cheaper elsewhere (so we preferred to tap their cheaper capacity first). Since then, Fracking and tar sand extraction has brought the U.S. to a new high in production. Globally, advances in discovery, has resulted in at least 2050 until we expect to supply peak, 70 years or so after we were supposed to be doomed -- assuming no further advancements are made. And demand peak (for oil based energy) may already be on the decline, well before we ever consumed all the supply.

The problem for TOC-scarists is that as the costs for one kind of energy goes up, it makes all the alternatives and improving efficiency more attractive to offset any difference, thus the markets correct themselves better than the planners can plan for.


Garrett Hardin

Main article: Garrett Hardin
Garrett Hardin.jpg

Despite the fact that it was disproven 160 years before he wrote it, in 1968 Garrett Hardin wrote his pessimistic scare-paper called "tragedy of the commons” [1] to regurgitate and repopularize the disproven ideas of Malthus and Lloyd, with the intent of (his words) drawing attention to, "the damage that... individuals can inflict on the environment”. Hardin preached to the gullible, "Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all” (or the corollary, "tyranny can save us”).

It was shredded by the academics of the era (including Nobel laureates), as they’d proven the wealth of the commons, and how common lands usually over-performed government controlled resources. But in the environmental movement, feelings are more important than facts, so Hardin is often quoted in revered tones anyways. He might have been completely wrong, and done poor academic research, but he gave good feels, and that's what's really important. (To some).

Ehrlich and the Population Bomb

Main article: Paul R. Ehrlich
Professor Paul R. Ehrlich did a shallow plagiaristic pessimistic derivative of Hardin and Malthus, entitled "The Population Bomb". Basically saying that if you didn’t give government all your money and rights now so they could enact compulsory population control. there would be mass starvations and war in the 1970’s and 1980’s that would wreck civilization. He is credited with being one of the founders or at least inspirations behind Earth Day/Week. Despite the opposite of all his predictions coming true, he claims to this day that his book was, "way too optimistic”. Showing this old dog can’t learn from his mistakes. And because his ideas were so wrong, and derivative, he’s won every award the left can throw at him: Sierra Club, World Wildlife Fund, MacArthur Prize, UN, American Institute of Biological Sciences — it’s like the whose who of those that don’t know what’s what.


Failed ideas should die out when they’re disproven. But old collectivists don’t learn, and new ones are created in Universities/factories at an alarming rate. They just keep spoon-feeding slightly tweaked variants of the same bullshit, and the gullible gobble it down, “Sure, all the other variants have failed before, but this time it’s different...”.

If you want to see whether government can protect us from tragedy of the commons, just look to countries that had the strongest authoritarian governments like USSR, Eastern Europe, North Korea, Cambodia, Venezuela, Cuba, and tell us how well they’ve managed their resources compared to countries like ours, that made most of the innovations we consider “greener” and better for the environment. Those of us who have some idea of history, science, sociology, human nature, realize that individuals can cooperate for mutual interest just fine, and it’s been government interfering with those natural processes that has created far more problems than it has ever helped.


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