February 01, 2005

The abuse of a college education

Posted by Curt at 07:25 PM in Economics | TrackBack

“Perhaps you’re familiar with “the tragedy of the commons,” a social dilemma outlined by the late biologist Garrett Hardin in a famous 1968 essay of the same name. The dilemma is that when individuals pursue personal gain, the net result for society as a whole may be impoverishment. (Pollution is the most familiar example.) Such thinking has fallen out of fashion amid President Bush’s talk of an “ownership society,” but its logic is unassailable.”

That response seems like a pretty damn obtuse interpretation of the essay, simply because the essay is nothing if not a plea for the creation of property rights. Furthermore, while it is true that Hardin claims that pursuing individual gain leads to group catastrophe, the word “when” in the paragraph above implies that there are times when the individual doesn’t, whereas Hardin claims that individuals basically always pursue their own interest, which is the problem in high-density situations where some amout of coordination is necessary. However, upon re-reading it, I realize that for Hardin property rights only forms a part of a wished-for imposition of coercive measures which will prevent individuals from pursuing personal gain at the expense of their environment. Which makes sense, because property rights, for all this may get lost in the ceaseless ideological wrangling today, are themselves forms of state-imposed coercion. Dismiss the semi-metaphysical nonsense in Locke and Kant about gaining “just propriety” over an object by making a visible mark on it. Think about it: animals control exactly as much “property” as they can defend; cheetahs peeing on trees only works because they will fight to defend what they have claimed. By contrast, think about who adjudicates the (in theory) incontestable property rights: the authorities, i.e. in our society, the State. The corollary of this, of course, is that nationalized or federal property is not “public property,” in the sense of property owned by the public—quite the contrary. The dichotomy between it and “private property” is spurious. “Public property” is simply property owned by the government. This no doubt seems obvious and intuitive, but based on the foolishness I cited above, it bears repeating that property rights, whether granted to others by the government or to itself, are not opposed to coercive state power but are in fact the very essence of it. That fact is perhaps more apparent in regards to so-called “intellectual property.”

As a marginal note, Hardin’s essay, despite the pithiness of its central analogy, is rather dispiriting insofar as it takes Hegel’s statement that “Freedom lies in the recognition of necessity” as its motto and guiding spirit. That formulation is, as I believe I have said before, perfectly monstruous. Freedom means nothing if it is not the absence of restriction, and it is perhaps a sign of the evasive confusion of priorities in Western culture that one would pretend to celebrate this value in such a way while in fact describing its opposite. Freedom is not an act or a thought, but rather a set of conditions under which action and thought occur. This is the same idealistic debasement of the language that has turned love into a deed: making love.


The corollary of this, of course, is that nationalized or federal property is not "public property," in the sense of property owned by the public—quite the contrary. The dichotomy between it and "private property" is spurious. "Public property" is simply property owned by the government.

Who is this "government" you speak of and how can I meet him?

Posted by: shonk at February 1, 2005 10:21 PM

You can argue all you want about whether only the existentially real, as it were, should have title to and assign legitimacy to property rights, but if you go trespassing in some federal wilderness area you'll soon find out just how "public" public property is.

Posted by: Curt at February 2, 2005 06:38 AM

“ The Tragedy of the Commons”, to me, is an implicit endorsement of private property and law, as these are the solutions to the problem. The only way to have property rights other than territorially marking trees and fighting or shooting anyone who trespasses on your property is to have laws. The only way to have laws is to have government. I don’t see why intellectual property is not included. The problem comes when nobody owns the property. (Government ownership in today’s world.) I’m not talking about the citizenry’s collective ownership of a specific piece of property such as an Air Force base, highways or sewers, which to me is not controversial, but stuff like the oceans and forests. That is where the dirty dealing comes in.
There could be no restrictions, just rape and pillage. The situation eventually becomes so bad that laws are enacted. If a farmer thinks of selling all his cattle to make more money this year he has to calculate that it might be better to hold back some breeding stock. If he plants some corn for the cattle to eat, his neighbors have no right to let their cows eat it without compensation. A commercial fisherman’s only interest is to catch as many fish as possible, to hell with the resources. Since nobody owns the Ocean, the only solution is government intervention, with all the attendant political corruption, bribery and cronyism and the environment gets the shaft. There are no free market solutions that I know of and that is the tragedy.

Posted by: Dave at February 2, 2005 05:03 PM

"This is the same idealistic debasement of the language that has turned love into a deed: making love."

Trivial perhaps, but I don't think many people who use the phrase "making love" have stoped using the coventional meaning. Hence, an expansion of the language, not a debasement. Would it be less debasing to the language to call it fucking.?

Posted by: Rossamus at February 4, 2005 04:11 AM

I'd say that creating ambiguities of that nature, especially sexual ambiguities, is a creation of confusion and hence a contraction of language. A poverty of expression also characterizes our remarkably meagre stock of vulgarities, which "fuck" has come to essentially monopolize.

Posted by: Curt at February 6, 2005 04:41 PM