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The Tragedy of the Commons | Quotes


There is no technical solution to the problem.

Garrett Hardin

Hardin wrote "The Tragedy of the Commons" in 1968, at the height of the Cold War and U.S. arms race with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics ( USSR) for domination through lethal weapons. Technology got the countries into the situation, and Hardin believes relying on more technology will only make the situation deadlier. He opens the essay with an appeal to look for alternate kinds of solutions to other problems as well.


I can win only by giving a radical meaning to the word 'win.'

Garrett Hardin

Hardin uses the example of "tic-tac-toe," a game in which two players take turns trying to place three markers in a row on a 3x3 grid. When both players are familiar with the game, it will always end in a stalemate. Like the population problem, the game can only be won if each player agrees to redefine the goal or change the rules.


To maximize population ... make the work calories per person approach as close to zero as possible.

Garrett Hardin

Hardin states a human adult needs 1,600 calories per day simply to stay alive. To support the maximum population possible, people would not be able to expend any additional calories for actions that provide quality of life.


Maximizing population does not maximize goods. Bentham's goal is impossible.

Garrett Hardin

This statement refers to Jeremy Bentham, an 18th-century philosopher who developed the philosophy of utilitarianism. Bentham's utilitarianism stated an act is moral if it brings the greatest amount of pleasure and the least amount of pain. This assesses the morality of an action on the results rather than on inflexible rules.


We can make little progress ... until we explicitly exorcize the spirit of Adam Smith.

Garrett Hardin

In The Wealth of Nations (1776), economist Adam Smith developed the idea individuals making rational choices on their own behalf ultimately benefit society. Someone who "intends only his own gain," Smith argued, is "led by an invisible hand to promote ... the public interest." Competition forces individuals and businesses to continually make their products more attractive in price or function. As a result, products keep improving. Society benefits and the economy grows.


The oceans of the world continue to suffer from ... the philosophy of the commons.

Garrett Hardin

According to Hardin, the earth's oceans and all they hold are viewed as an unlimited commodity to be exploited. For millennia fish were caught in small enough numbers, but in modern times demand for seafood has made fishing a profitable industry. This has led to overfishing and the near extinction of whales and other sea life.


The tragedy of the commons ... is averted by private property, or something formally like it.

Garrett Hardin

Hardin favors private ownership, which protects a resource from overuse. Since it is not a commons, it is protected from being overrun and exploited by others. However, Hardin admits a property owner or inheritor can also squander the resource or use it irresponsibility.


The morality of an act is a function of the state of the system.

Garrett Hardin

Hardin believes before judging whether an action is moral or immoral, one must examine the circumstances and social system. For example, whether killing a bison is seen as a moral choice depends on the cultural context and conditions at the time. Morality must be judged in light of the circumstances, rather than as a rigid rule.


Parents who bred too exuberantly would leave fewer descendants, not more.

Garrett Hardin

Hardin states without government support, children in large, impoverished families would be more likely to die, thus reducing population growth. This builds on the writings of Malthus, who advised families should only have as many children as they can afford.


Our society is deeply committed to the welfare state.

Garrett Hardin

Hardin objects to the welfare state, where society or government provides food, shelter, and social services to the needy. In Hardin's view these entitlements protect people from the negative consequences of their own actions, especially in regard to having children they can't afford. The society is left responsible for providing for their children.


Freedom to breed with ... equal right to the commons is ... a tragic course.

Garrett Hardin

The Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in the aftermath of the atrocities of World War II. It states a person is entitled to an adequate standard of living, "including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control." It also states each individual has the right to decide how many children to have.

Hardin objects to the declaration because it sanctifies the rights of families to make their own decisions outside state control and supports the creation of a welfare state.


The commons, if justifiable at all, is justifiable only under conditions of low-population density.

Garrett Hardin

Hardin is opposed to shared resources being available for every member to use without limit. He believes a resource can only be shared when the user population is small and use is low.


Consciously or subconsciously, he senses that he has received two communications, and that they are contradictory.

Garrett Hardin

Hardin is referring to researcher Gregory Bateson's 1956 work "Towards a Theory of Schizophrenia." Hardin uses Bateson's work to support his assertion people make decisions based on fear and anxiety rather than rational thought.


The social arrangements that produce responsibility are arrangements that create coercion, of some sort.

Garrett Hardin

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, coercion influences an individual or group to take or not take an action. Coercion can be used for positive or oppressive goals, through either rewards or punishment.


'Freedom is the recognition of necessity.'

Georg Hegel

Hardin attributes this quote to the 18th-century philosopher Georg Hegel. At the core of Hegel's philosophical system is the notion of dialectics. Dialectics involves one state of being and an opposing force. Through interaction they reach a new, more perfect state. In terms of social change, the society starts off with a set of beliefs or norms. These become challenged as conditions change. From the interaction a new state emerges that better serves the group. The resulting state becomes the new normal, until it, in turn, is challenged by new forces.

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