Tragedy of the Commons: Why Free Enterprise Saves & Communism Kills
“[I]f both in the enjoyment of the produce and in the work of production they prove not equal but unequal, complaints are bound to arise between those who enjoy or take much but work little and those who take less but work more.” —Aristotle, Politics
The Road to Hell Is Paved with Good Intentions
From the start in America, the Pilgrims discovered the power of free enterprise. But they also discovered the deadliness of putting into place the wrong economic model.
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The Pilgrims’ communal organization was founded on good intentions, but it would prove deadly. It was based on Platonic, collectivist notions antecedent to Marxism. The main idea was that equal sharing of wealth was the best means to care for everyone. But the Pilgrims discovered that collectivist sharing would only prove to be a recipe for disaster.
The Pilgrims discovered the most humane results were actually brought about when members of the community pursued their own self-interests. Initially, this was counterintuitive to the Pilgrim way. And it is knowledge that would be purchased at the cost of human lives.
During the Great Sickness of 1620, the Pilgrims were dying. Without an abundance of food, the community found it difficult to nourish the bedridden. Many more succumbed than would have been the case in an environment of abundance.
The Pilgrims’ Lesson
When raising crops, the communal approach just did not work. It was not only counterproductive but rendered consequences that proved to be deadly.
Since workers received equal shares of the crops, no matter how hard they might work, people started to avoid work in the common fields. It is not surprising that the crop yield sank to dangerously low levels. And this exacerbated matters, once many in the community had grown ill.
The communal idea was that everyone should participate according to the best of one’s ability, but that everybody should receive an equal reward. This meant working harder would not bring higher pay, and working less would incur no penalty. Given such a policy, there was no incentive to work hard. Thus, sharing wealth, in reality, only spread poverty.
The food shortage created by this socialist economic experiment was severe enough to cause people to starve. The solution came in 1623, when Governor Bradford wisely decided to give every family its own plot of land to work, the harvest of which would be retained by the members of the household to eat or to trade.
Governor Bradford “assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number. . . . . This had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted. . . . The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn; which before would allege weakness and inability. . . .”
Replacing What Sounds Good with What Works
Long ago, Aristotle, while criticizing Plato’s Republic, wrote that no one feels the responsibility that comes from ownership, if “mine” does not actually mean “mine.” Greater abundance results from private ownership of the fruits of one’s labor and the freedom enjoyed in how those fruits might be disposed of. This is the freedom of the free-enterprise system.
As early as 1624, the Pilgrims were far from starving, producing a surplus that could be exported. Governor Bradford’s decision to go with private ownership and a free-enterprise economic model was literally a lifesaver.
Beyond enabling survival, such free-market enterprise eventually brought about wealth creation and the ability to build a richer and better community for all. Unwise policies could only promote problems of material and motivational scarcity, bringing about the Tragedy of the Commons.1
Rejecting Utopian Misery
In the history of the world, we have seen much utopian experimentation. But socialism always creates nothing more, in the end, than incivility and misery, at best, depredation and death at worst. In the Soviet Union, it took totalitarian despotism to make people live under the conditions that came about under share-the-wealth ideology. Reward was only obtained on the basis of political connections. The government owned all property in the name of the people. This absence of private property rights translated into exploitation of the environment at unprecedented levels.
No private ownership of the land meant no incentive to conserve the land, so its value might be maintained. Instead, the incentive for people was exploitation of the environment before someone else did it: overgrazing, deforestation, and overfishing are a few of the sad results.
Free enterprise and property rights, along with rule of law, produce the wealth that allows people to be free and independent and allows the environment to be properly cared for. For people to see that it is in their best interests to work hard, there must be value attached to hard work and to the responsible stewardship of the environment.
A Serious Warning for America Today
Wealth redistribution on the scale it exists in modern America—the taking of large quantities of wealth, from those who earned it, to give to those who did not—can only encourage less effort by the wealth creators that all hardworking people are. Indeed, why not stop working altogether, since idleness is increasingly rewarded and industriousness comparatively less so?
If the state continues down this collectivist path, an increase in poverty will naturally result. We must allow people, by pursuing their own dreams, to earn the abundance that rewards everyone, without taking so much from them to give to others. It is not a crime that there is poverty in the world. What is a crime is eliminating poverty for some in the present, with the trade-off of guaranteeing poverty for all in the future.
- In 1968, an ecologist named Garrett Hardin explored this social problem of neglect of publicly shared property in The Tragedy of the Commons, an article published in Science Magazine. [↩]
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