The Inferiority of the Commons

Why Communal Property is Chronically Tragic


Under private property, the actual user of a resource unit can allocate it to the pursuit of any end. Under communal property, the actual user’s allocation of a resource unit is restricted by other individuals, who may veto certain uses of the resource, or who may interrupt longer-term uses. When their optimal ends are, in this way, made unpursuable, individuals will necessarily dedicate the resources under their immediate control to suboptimal ends instead. This logically necessary truth may be called The Law of the Sub-Optimal Use of Communal Property. Such restrictions necessarily entail harm to the interests of the restricted user. To the extent that such restrictions are raised to a general principle, they limit the horizons of all individuals in society, and therefore redound to the general harm of the interests of everybody.

The Law of the Sub-Optimal Use of Communal Property holds for communal property in factors of production. For example, with fully communal grazing land (the paradigmatic case of Garrett Hardin’s “The Tragedy of the Commons”), the individual cowherd is prevented from allocating grass toward conservation to pursue what may, to him, be the optimal end of preserving the fertility of the pasture, and thus increasing his long-term productivity. This is because his allocation of grass to this more distant end will likely be interrupted by other peasants redirecting that grass to the more immediate end of feeding their cattle. Every other cowherd is in the same position, so each one must resort to his suboptimal end of maximally fattening his cattle while he can, and leave unpursued his optimal end of maintaining the pasture’s vitality. The result is all the cowherds being worse off according to their own preferences, and therefore may be given the normative label of “overgrazing,” or the “abuse” of the natural resource.

This eternal truth is what Aristotle was referring to when he wrote:

…that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it.

In contrast, under private property, each cowherd would be free to pursue any ends, whether immediate or distant, he has for the grass under his immediate control. There would be no problem of overgrazing or natural resource abuse, because every cowherd would be secure from interruption of his pursuit of his higher, more distant end of pasture preservation, and its resulting greater, more long-term productivity.

The Law of the Sub-Optimal Economization of Communal Property, also holds in the case of communal ownership of products, which, in the final analysis, are merely the future, transformed states of present factors of production. For example, when the yield of all the farmers in a region is made communal (as in the case of the disastrous initial economic arrangements of the American Pilgrims), the individual farmer is prevented from allocating all of the land, bodily power, and other resources under his disposal toward his optimal ends of feeding his own family or exchanging his yield for other goods for the benefit of his own family. This is because any land, seed, etc, that he combines with his labor to convert into farm produce will become partially lost to him when a portion of that produce is redistributed to others. Therefore, he will necessarily allocate some of his land and human energy toward suboptimal ends. Every other farmer is in the same position, so each one will dedicate some of the use of his body to a sub-optimal end like leisure enjoyment, and leave unpursued his optimal end of providing greater sustenance by way of more labor. The result is all the farmers being worse off according to their own preferences, and therefore may be given the normative label of “shirking,” or the “under-employment” of human labor.

This eternal truth is what Democritus, another ancient Greek philosopher, was referring to when he wrote:

Income from communally held property gives less pleasure, and the expenditure less pain. Toil is sweeter than idleness when men gain what they toil for or know that they will use it.

Communal property corrals people into an economic race to the bottom. Private property sets people free to pursue the wisest course of economic action.

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