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?.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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