The Commons

The Failed Metaphysics Behind Private Property: Sharing our Commonhood

Liberalism: The Implicit Tragedy of the Commons

Garrett Hardin is often cited for his 1968 essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons.” In this classic critique of common property management, Hardin gives the example of herders grazing their cattle on a shared parcel of land. He observes that these individual herdsmen, acting out of self-interest, will put more and more cattle in the pasture. This overgrazing, he says, will deplete or perhaps destroy the field’s limited resources of foliage and soil, which is not in the long-term interest of the group. The failure of such commons through disorganization and waste illustrates the need for external intervention, Hardin implies, whether through the private or public sectors. Yet numerous studies have shown that societies can successfully manage their resources using some form of collective property. Traditional communities which organize resources through customary practice, and modern social networks such as digital communities which rely on system architectures and cooperative standards, both demonstrate that tragedies of the commons are not inevitable. Despite broad differences in local circumstances, this research suggests, common property can be effectively managed using informal norms.

However, these analyses rarely explore the historical and philosophical contexts in which failed commons occur. They avoid the most basic questions. What exactly is the social nature of property? How does a property regime reflect the self-understanding of the people who use it? Why do individuals relate to property through shared assumptions about who they are? The study of resources, bodies, lives, minds and human interaction expands commons research from the realm of social analysis into the moral philosophy of the greater good. And the philosophy of what is good for society inevitably raises the question of the personal metaphysics behind property. What is the understanding of human nature in societies where failed commons occur? How do individuals rationalize a social belief system that encourages them to act against their own interests, as Hardin says, allowing their commons to fail? And why should we assume that property has but one meaning, which may be defined only within the context of liberal society?

This article focuses on the sacred cow of private property in liberal philosophy and politics and its catastrophic impact on the commons. Numerous liberal thinkers (mostly male) have attempted to base social systems, moral obligations and property rights in human nature using the laws of the natural universe. They share the blame for the devastation of the commons. No one has influenced the rules, institutions and concepts of modern individualism more than John Locke. It was Locke, the 17th century philosopher and political scientist, who formulated the central tenet of liberalism: that property should be organized through individual ownership by excluding others. Locke’s source code, both at the meta-level and physical level, is still driving our operating system. It repeats endlessly the ‘empirical’ story that nature intended the commons to be possessed through proprietary ownership. From the long view of social history and political philosophy, however, it’s Locke’s sacred cow of proprietary rights that has been devouring the commons, not Hardin’s hungry cattle or their poor herders.

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Failed Metaphysics Behind Private Property