The Tragedy Of The Commons

“The tragedy of the commons” is a term used to describe the problem for property rights advocates when it comes to government-controlled property open to the public. It is a form of socialism, because the arrangement makes it difficult to determine who has the right to do what in that context.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that where a libertarian stands on this issue is paramount above most all other stances or views, because it is so applicable and relevant to what we see in our modern political context. Also, their take on the matter will determine much of their other attitudes.

There are essentially two different viewpoints.

The first is that public commons or public lands are owned by all, because no private entity owns them. This means anyone from anywhere has equal access to it and can use it for any purpose they want. All resources therein belong to everybody, and the government controlling the land has no right to impose any kind of restriction on the property’s use or activity on it.

This is an inherently communist interpretation of property rights.

The second viewpoint holds a more nuanced – and intelligent – analysis. Although the state controls the property, not everyone has the right to access or use it because not everyone is paying for it. Those who are coerced into funding its maintenance and perpetual control via the government holding it are the true owners. By opening it up to all, it allows people who are not forced to fund the property’s maintenance and control to essentially rob others of their money through the state.

Also, because certain people are not paying for it, they have no incentive to reduce or restrict their consumption of the resources or endeavor to maintain the property. It is someone else’s problem.

Further, this viewpoint rightfully points out that there is no private sector example of a property in which the owner is not allowed to set rules or impose restrictions on the use of the resources on the property. All private property is governed by the owner who is free to impose whatever rules they please.

To remove all restrictions on a public commons or property leads to the lowest common denominator of individuals occupying it, the destruction of the property’s quality, and the full consumption of any resources on it to the point of shortages.

As Hans Herman Hoppe writes:

The second possible way out is to claim that all so-called public property – the property controlled by local, regional or central government – is akin to open frontier, with free and unrestricted access. Yet this is certainly erroneous. From the fact that government property is illegitimate because it is based on prior expropriations, it does not follow that it is un-owned and free-for-all. It has been funded through local, regional, national or federal tax payments, and it is the payers of these taxes, then, and no one else, who are the legitimate owners of all public property.They cannot exercise their right – that right has been arrogated by the State – but they are the legitimate owners.

What’s a greater tragedy than that of the commons is that so many libertarians adopt a communist view of state-controlled property that leads to the defense of unsustainable activity rather than understanding the situation is an aberration of how the land would be handled by the private sector.

This matters, because it affects how you think public land should be operated. The communist view is that no matter how much or in what manner the state taxes a group of people to pay for the land and its resources, anyone can come and occupy it for whatever purpose they desire. It eventually leads to the destruction of that property just as we saw in communist nations.

In contrast, the correct application of libertarian philosophy is that the state has an illegitimate claim of ownership and that true ownership is found within those taxed to pay for the land. Therefore, as long as the state entity controls it, those people have a right to impose through that state entity rules, regulations, restrictions, and policies as to who may enter the property, how it and the resources therein can be used in order to assure its overall preservation.

Once the property is sold to a private owner, the matter is moot – at least for those who argued in good faith.



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