Thesis Number: #8 (Page 6 of 9)

Protecting Property Rights

Politicians have appropriated the concept of sustainability from ecologists to control the debate. But academics must accept some of the blame for policy errors. This is illustrated by the notion of “tragedy of the commons”, coined by American ecologist Garrett Hardin. His article in the journal Science in 1968 went viral. The case against common rights to land was implied by the notion that the ancient commons (on which people grazed their cattle) were over-exploited. Without private property rights, there was no way to regulate the use of land. The Right used this narrative to propagate the privatisation of nature’s resources. An urban equivalent is Hernando de Soto’s claim (in The Mystery of Capital) that, to eradicate poverty, slum dwellers must be given ownership of the land occupied by their shacks.

Hardin’s concept was not an honest representation of how communities managed their commons. Traditionally, people did regulate the use of resources to sustain their household economies over inter-generational timescales. When this was pointed out to Hardin, he agreed that he ought to have qualified the title of his essay with the word “unmanaged” (Hardin 1991).

Since the publication of his correction, however, Hardin’s original use of the idea that the commons were betrayed by reckless users has continued to be exploited by right-wing ideologues. The beneficiaries are people and corporations that get rich by arbitraging the gap between the rents of nature’s resources, and the taxes charged by governments for their use. That gap is very wide, which is why the world continues to spawn more natural resource billionaires every year.

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