Will the Commons Become Tragic?

It is quite possible that the greatest human challenge in this century will be how or whether we humans can fairly share what belongs to all. Aristotle stated the issue: "... what is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. Everyone thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest." Garrett Hardin summarized this issue for the present age: "Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons."

Our economic system is built on the proposition that markets allocate resources best. But what is true of private resources may not also be true of public resources, those we hold in common. The conservative response to this is, of course, privatize all public resources. 20 years ago this was accomplished in Russia, and about a dozen and a half oligarchs ended up with most of the public assets.

In the industrial age we let private interests allocate our most precious public resources, our air and water, and we see how that worked out. In this century we are now competing with the rest of the world as to how and whether together we can prevent carbonization of our very climate from fundamentally altering life on earth.

Every man for himself would be a (more or less) rational approach to life... if men and women were merely economic creatures. But there is also such a thing as moral man. And it is moral man (and woman) who confront the necessity of protecting the commons and preventing a tragedy brought on by greed.

We will either learn to live together and protect and preserve our common resources or our children and future generations -- with the exception of the very wealthy -- will have to learn how to perish separately. And the prospect of a world of all against all may not even prove to be that attractive to the children of the very wealthy.

Visit Senator Hart's blog, Matters of Principle.