Category Archives: civic theory

Garret Hardin and the extreme right

Garret Hardin’s 1968 Science article entitled “The Tragedy of the Commons” has been cited more than 40,000 times. It is appropriately influential, since the problem he analyzed is pervasive and profound. The example of global warming could kill us all, as could the example with which he began his article: the nuclear arms race.

Hardin saw ubiquitous “tragedies,” situations defined by the “solemnity of the relentless working of things,” “the inevitableness of destiny,” and “the futility of escape” (quoting Alfred North Whitehead). That stance provoked Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues to identify solutions. In place of the tragedy of the commons, Ostrom observed a drama that may end as either a comedy or a tragedy, depending on how we act. I find her response to Hardin extraordinarily important.

Several recent articles have explored Hardin’s apparent connection to radical anti-immigration campaigns. These articles have been prompted by the El Paso murderer’s writings (which have environmentalist echoes) plus the recent death of John Tanton, the founder of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). Tanton was inspired by Hardin, who served on the FAIR board. See, for example, Matto Mildenberger, “The Tragedy of the Tragedy of the Commons (subtitled: “The man who wrote one of environmentalism’s most-cited essays was a racist, eugenicist, nativist and Islamaphobe—plus his argument was wrong”) and Alexander C. Kaufman, “The El Paso Manifesto: Where Racism and Eco-Facism Meet.”

I don’t have extra insights into Hardin and have not directly evaluated the charges in these articles. But I have long wondered about the strange normative claims in the “Tragedy of the Commons” article.

For instance, at one point, Hardin considers whether a system of private property plus legal inheritance is just. He answers that it is not, because “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.” Instead, in our system, “an idiot can inherit millions,” which we “must admit” is unjust, although it does help to prevent a tragedy of the commons by protecting property rights (p. 1247).

Hardin says that this conclusion about justice follows from his training as a biologist. But biology cannot demonstrate that the biologically fittest deserve the most property. Biology should not yield normative conclusions at all. From the perspective of science–the study of nature–there is no justice, not even a reason to prefer environmental sustainability over a tragedy of the commons.

One reason that some people try to derive ethics from biology is naturalism: they posit that there can be no truths about right and wrong, only truths about nature that science uncovers. Therefore, we should replace any ethical claims with scientific ones. In my view, this is misguided, but it isn’t necessarily pernicious; plenty of people who hold decent values are naturalists, in this sense of the word.

A different reason is some kind of enthusiasm for Darwinian nature, understood as a realm of power and selection-of-the-fittest, in contrast to our debased societies that coddle the weak. This is not naturalism but evil. Reading “The Tragedy of the Commons” many times, I always assumed that Hardin was a naturalist, but now I wonder if he was at least tinged by evil.

See also: Seeing Like a Citizen: The Contributions of Elinor Ostrom to “Civic Studies”; against inevitability; is all truth scientific truth?; and does naturalism make room for the humanities?.

Gandhi versus Jinnah on means and ends

(Posted while leading the 11th annual Summer Institute of Civic Studies, on questions like this one.)

A major theme in Gandhi’s thought it the primacy of means over ends.

In 1924, some Indian political leaders proposed the immediate creation of a new, independent “Federated Republic of the United States of India.” They argued that this end justified a wide range of strategies. They wanted to “delete the words ‘by peaceful and legitimate means’ from the Congress creed, so that men holding every shade of opinion may have no difficulty in joining” the independence struggle. That would have expanded the range of means employed to achieve the goal of home-rule.

Gandhi replied, “They say ‘means are after all means’. I would say ‘means are after all everything’. As the means so the end.” The “only universal definition to give it is ‘that status of India which her people desire at a given moment.’ If I were asked what India desires at the present moment, I should say I do not know.” For Gandhi, the means used to pursue swaraj (independence in its deepest sense) had to be good ones. “As the means so the end. Violent means will give violent swaraj. That would be a menace to the world and to India herself.”  

Drawing on Karuna Mantena, I would suggest the following Gandhian reasons to focus on means rather than ends. Human beings are cognitively limited and cannot see justice far beyond our own present circumstances. Human beings are motivationally flawed and highly susceptible to various distorting and destructive impulses. Therefore, we must choose modes of politics that channel our impulses in beneficial rather than harmful directions. Forming too sharp a definition of justice (or any of its components, such as national sovereignty) can simply excuse bad behavior. Consequences are always difficult to predict and control, and trying to pursue elaborate ends is foolish. We disagree, and what we decide about justice right now is contingent on how we are organized, so it is crucial to get the organization right. Finally, how we participate in politics helps to constitute the world. By acting, we don’t merely bring about a result (usually an unpredictable one); we immediately create a new reality just in virtue of our action.

A focus on means and a reluctance to specify ends does, however, pose a risk. A person might (whether intentionally or inadvertently) select and defend means that generate a foreseeable outcome or that foreclose the outcome that others prefer. That could be a back-door strategy for getting the ends that the person wanted in the first place. To claim that you are too humble and aware of your own limits to know the best goals is disingenuous if it’s clear what ends your favored means will lead to.

This was essentially Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s quarrel with Gandhi. Gandhi insisted that the social movement for Indian independence must involve close collaborations among Hindus, Muslims and adherents of other faiths. Immediately after saying that he did not know what India wanted, he added that he only endorsed a few values, including “truthful relations between Hindus and Mussalmans.” (“Truthful,” for him, would imply a close, sincere, and interactive relationship.) For Gandhi, the means of political action in India must incorporate interfaith dialogue and cooperation.

Although Gandhi insisted that “Congress leaves swaraj undefined,” Jinnah could see that if Hindus and Muslims won independence together, they would found a democracy with a large Hindu majority. This new country might be secular, or it might be Hindu-dominated, but it couldn’t be an Islamic republic–simply because of demographics. Jinnah identified the Congress as a Hindu organization and created the Muslim League as an alternative. He objected when Congress tried to place its Muslim President, Maulana Azad, in the provisional cabinet for British India, arguing that the Muslim League should name all Muslim members. After Gandhi’s assassination, Jinnah eulogized him as “one of the greatest men produced by the Hindu community and a leader who commanded their [sic] universal confidence and respect.” Jinnah regretted Gandhi’s death “so soon after the birth of freedom for Hindustan [his term for India] and Pakistan.” Thus, although Gandhi claimed that “means are after all everything,” Jinnah saw that Gandhi’s means would prevent Jinnah’s goal, a sovereign Pakistan. And he charged Gandhi with having an implicit goal of his own: the creation of a “Hindustan.”

The broader, theoretical question is how to think about means and ends when sometimes the means that we choose for good intrinsic reasons have foreseeable ends that are subject to debate. Yet, if we propose a clear vision of our goal, how can we know that it is right, and who gets to evaluate it? Surely, that requires a process that is not simply designed to yield a given outcome.

For what it’s worth, this is my verdict on the case at hand. Gandhi joined and then led an interfaith party for swaraj that encouraged debates about both means and goals. Jinnah was a member of that party, albeit mostly before Gandhi’s arrival from South Africa. Jinnah and others had the right to quit the party and movement. Exit is a legitimate choice in movements and party politics. As a result of Jinnah’s exit, Gandhi’s means failed: Congress ceased to be a forum for dialogue and cooperation that included the kinds of people who preferred the Muslim League. But Gandhi’s failure doesn’t invalidate his general advice to focus on means rather than specific ends.

Drawing here on Karuna Mantena, “Another Realism, the Politics of Gandhian Nonviolence,” American Political Science Review, vol. 106, no. 2 (May 2012) and various original passages from Gandhi’s works that Mantena’s article led me to. Also drawing on Ramachandra Guha, Gandhi: The Years that Changed the World, 1914-1948 (New York: Knopf, 2018)

the metaphor of going into a community

Researchers, students, government officials, organizers, activists–lots of people talk about “going into communities.” Although I resist the rhetorical move of “problematizing” everything, I think this metaphor deserves scrutiny. It assumes that communities are physically located and bounded, which is probably the exception, especially in the 21st century

It also assumes that we are not already “in.” If, for example, a group of Tufts students and faculty decide to go into Somerville to do some research or service, it’s worth noting that they were already in that city when they set out. A community should not be defined in a way that gerrymanders ourselves out of it. If we mean to name a demographic or social group, then we should say that. A demographic category is not a community.

If a community is a web of relationships, then to enter it you must form relationships with at least some of the people who belong to it–face-to-face or remotely. You cannot then simply leave it by moving your body away. You can break off the relationships, but that is also a way of relating to other people, with consequences.

If we decide to move to a different location to do work, that doesn’t mean that we go from a state of not being in a community to being in one. It means that we have a chance to form relationships with new people, and most of them probably move around a lot, too.

The whole spatial metaphor of traveling in and out of communities may be left over from classical field ethnography–traveling to Samoa to collect data–but it easily misleads.

how a mixed economy shapes our mentalities

(On my way to London for a small conference on Friedrich Hayek and Elinor and Vincent Ostrom).

These are some of the activities that we undertake as we organize social activity in a mixed 21st century economy:

  1. Observing prices of inputs and outputs and identifying opportunities for profit (market);
  2. Discussing a collective choice and then voting according to our preferences (democracy);
  3. Taking direction from a supervisor and directing subordinates to help fulfill that order (bureaucracy);
  4. Framing a complaint against another party and bringing it before a neutral tribunal (law);
  5. Forming an intimate, loving relationship with a concrete other person and taking that person’s interests as one’s own (family, and related groups);
  6. Drawing people of like minds together into a voluntary grouping (network);
  7. Assembling evidence for a conclusion and submitting it for expert review and possible publication and citation (science);
  8. Constructing a creative work within the boundaries of a genre and seeking the approval of a knowledgeable aesthetic community (art);
  9. Professing articles of faith and participating in the rituals of fellow believers (religion).

Sometimes these ways of interacting come into conflict. A society can use one method or another to make a decision, but not both at the same time; and the consequences of such choices may be profound. For example, if you have no ability to produce goods that have market value, but social outcomes are determined entirely by #1, then you may starve. But if the majority hates people like you and laws are made solely by #2, you may die. In subtler everyday cases, the balance among state regulation, bureaucracy, scientific autonomy, etc. can have huge economic and sociological effects.

Still, I start with the presumption that we need all of these ways of interacting. Each reflects accumulated experience and partial but significant truths about the world. Each results from the cumulative thinking of countless people, who surpass the mental capacity of any individual or small group. Each has proven a degree of fitness in the competition for support. It’s a dangerous form of arrogance to minimize any of these logics a priori, even though we are entitled to argue for one over the others in particular cases.

Thus I dissent from Hayek-style classical liberals who would assign these eight logics to two boxes. For Hayek, #1, #4, #5, #6 and #8 are “emergent” or “spontaneous” forms of order that reflect lots of people making specific choices in their own circumstances. We are good at these ways of thinking. On the whole, using these methods should generate progress, as improvements survive and mistakes die off. These methods should yield enough stability and predictability that individuals can act intentionally.

In contrast, Hayek thinks that #2 and #3 are examples of deliberate social engineering, which exceeds our capacities and endangers others by allowing too much discretion.

I disagree with this categorization because all these logics are emergent. Their current states reflect the largely uncoordinated activity of countless predecessors, who have thought and interacted in eight different ways. Just for example, any democratic system (#2) is a highly complex combination of rules, norms, forums, and offices. It cannot simply be the rule: “50%+1 wins,” because that rule doesn’t stand on its own. Who gets to vote? Who sets the agenda? Who is influential? The current state of a democratic system probably reflects some successful adaptation to circumstances. See Ostrom, E. (1986). An Agenda for the Study of Institutions. Public Choice,48(1), 3-25.

I also dissent from strong democrats and social democrats who think that only #2 is ultimately just; therefore, a deliberative democracy should be sovereign and able to make all decisions unless it chooses to assign decisions to other institutions (including courts and markets). I think this approach privileges one form of interaction, which has distinctive limitations as well as advantages.

So far, this is a familiar argument for a mixed economy (or political pluralism in Galston’s sense). I’ve tried to defend this position before, for instance in “polycentricity: the case for a (very) mixed economy” and “should all institutions be democratic?” Here I would like to add a point about the impact of such pluralism on our mentalities.

Participating in any collective endeavor teaches skills and values. We learn and develop lasting habits of character from each of the activities listed above.

Every time we use one of these logics, we learn to see the world in a particular way–for example, as a set of goods that all have current prices, or as a commonwealth shaped by our collective decisions, or as set of natural processes that can be objectively understood. We are responsible for making specific decisions: what to buy or sell, which way to vote, whether to join a church. But we are also responsible for making the meta-decision about which decision-making processes to use. It is unlikely that we will make those meta-decisions wisely unless many of us have substantial experience with each logic.

If market logics are hegemonic, everything (and everyone) looks like a good with a price, and other ways of thinking atrophy. Therefore, classical liberals/libertarians are wrong to think that a market accommodates all values and mentalities that are compatible with other people’s freedom. A rampant market shapes the subjectivity of its participants and makes them less capable of other forms of interaction. This is the truth in the charge against “neoliberalism” (a social order that is heavily influenced by market logics.)

A related problem for libertarians is that they need people to be socialized to favor market values. Two centuries after classical liberal ideas emerged, great masses of people have not gravitated to them. And when people have the freedom to form groups, sometimes the groups they design–such as gated residential communities and disciplined corporate bureaucracies–probably teach the next generation to expect and value imposed social order. Should young people be raised to think in market terms? If so, what is a legitimate way to accomplish that?

But the same charge might be made against the other logics, too. There are subcultures in which almost everyone is allergic to market thinking and only learns to participate in voluntary networks or aesthetic communities. Yet these subcultures don’t spread to the whole population any more than libertarianism does.

I am hinting at two empirical claims: 1) Immersion in any social form shapes subjectivity, influencing how people interact and the forms of interaction that they value. And 2) People who work in multiple social forms are better at weighing their respective pros and cons.

I think there is a large but dispersed empirical literature on the first claim, but I have not explored it thoroughly. I doubt much is known about the second claim.

The underlying theory here is compatible with two famous thinkers, who make somewhat strange bedfellows. One is the author of Federalist #51 (probably Madison) who writes, “This policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public.” He is emphasizing one principle of good design (division of power) that might be used across different social forms, but we could generalize his point. People are embedded in many private and public arrangements, all of which need principles of design.

That bring me to John Dewey, who writes, “The forms to which we are accustomed in democratic governments represent the cumulative effect of a multitude of events, unpremeditated as far as political effects were concerned and having unpredictable consequences.” For Dewey, as we develop new forms of self-government in any domain (a state, an office, a family), we have an opportunity to learn what works better and test its logic elsewhere.

See also: against state-centric political theorythe right to strikeChina teaches the value of political pluralism; explaining Dewey’s pragmatism; the truth in Hayek; the legacy of Elinor Ostrom and the Bloomington School; and why the deliberative democracy framework doesn’t quite work for me.

marginalizing views in a time of polarization

I recently posted “marginalizing odious views: a strategy,” which was about a powerful and sometimes valuable tool for self-governance. When communities define specific perspectives as beyond consideration, they uphold norms without needing formal censorship. This is good when it happens to Nazis (for instance), but problematic when it’s used to block serious consideration of minority views.

I assume that marginalization is a perennial strategy. Its advantages and risks–especially as compared to a strategy of engagement–are also perennial. But the context does make a difference.

When most Americans got their news from three rather similar TV networks plus a metropolitan daily newspaper that had from zero to three local competitors, marginalization depended on the mass media. You could try to marginalize a position that you considered odious, or create space for a currently marginalized view, but your success would depend on what Walter Cronkite and his ilk thought. If a position wasn’t marginalized on the network news, it wasn’t marginalized. And if a view never got aired in the mass media, then it was pretty marginal even if you and your friends believed in it.

At the same time, the two major parties had overlapping national elites with similar educational pedigrees who, while disagreeing about some important matters of policy, still tended to agree about what was marginal. Along with the mass media, they adjudicated what belonged on the national agenda. Thus the terms of the game were clearly defined, even if the rules were problematic because they gave too much power to homogeneous elites.

Now that the media landscape is highly fractured, we live in many separate epistemic communities. What is mainstream in one setting can be effectively marginalized in another. Just to name one example, the phrase “illegal immigrants” is pretty much marginalized in both my city and my university, but it is the standard phrase across large swaths of America.

The fact that our national discourse is polarized and balkanized has been widely noted, but I want to emphasize the consequences for a strategy of marginalization:

  1. It is now virtually impossible to marginalize across the society as a whole. Given any opinion, some people are comfortably expressing it right now in public (online) to their fellow believers.
  2. It is now much easier to marginalize within a community in which you in are the mainstream. The temptation to say, “We don’t say that here” is very high when that can be so successful.
  3. There is also a constant temptation to demonstrate that each community is biased by forcing it to confront views that it is trying to marginalize. That makes the community look intolerant to external audiences. For instance, if a university seems pervasively liberal, invite Milo, watch the reaction, and cry “Censorship!”
  4. Since being marginalized feels like being censored, more people have the experience of censorship in various specific settings where their own views are unpopular. In fact, almost everyone would be marginalized somewhere.
  5. The same statements often have a double effect. For their proponents, they reinforce shared norms. For their opponents, they serve as examples of what must be marginalized. For instance, Rush Limbaugh clearly has two audiences: conservatives who like what he says and liberals who are appalled by quotes that circulate in their networks. (Both reactions benefit Limbaugh by bolstering his prominence.)
  6. The strategy that is furthest from marginalization–trying to learn from other people while sharing your opinions with them–is harder than ever, because we all hide in homogeneous communities.

I continue to think that marginalization has a place in politics. Not every opinion deserves respectful consideration. Communities gain coherence and value by drawing limits around what they will consider. However, I suspect that a fractured media system makes marginalization too tempting and persuasion too difficult, with costs for democracy.