The Tragedy of the Commons and Society – Bill Reader
I consider myself to be a patriotic libertarian. But in the circles I move in, I may as well bill myself as a red-hot snowman or an honest politician. There are many libertarians… really, mostly Libertarians… who feel that a belief in borders, let alone national pride or a national character, is antithetical to the entire philosophy. This post is addressed to them.
I would first like to lay out, for the sake of clarity, what I see to be the main drivers of this belief and most particularly the vehemence with which it is held. The first and most obvious contributor is the idea, central to all libertarian thought, of valuing the individual. Whenever people are treated as a homogenous group, it is thought that the individual loses some of their relative value… that some minority opinions will be trampled. I think all libertarians are especially sensitive to this point because we have, often, spent our entire lives being politically marginalized, and it will leave certain characteristic scars whether we choose to admit it or not.
I will address the point briefly. It is absolutely true that thinking of people as faceless mobs rather than individuals has caused, and continues to cause, untold harm. Too often, decisions by the collective are decisions by a few power brokers. Identity politics is this exactly. And from it we know further that reinforcement by in-grouping is as destructive as the more obvious problem of trampling the minority. The prior, more than the latter, is what makes Orwellian futures so grim. It is likewise true that the very act of establishing and maintaining a state requires some kind of collective action. Unless a sufficiently large number of people in an area are willing to assert, in common, that an area is a state, within whose bounds certain rules apply; unless they are willing to commonly put teeth in that claim when it is tested, a state does not exist.
You may think I’m going to say that the collective idea of the United States manages to avoid these problems. But the fundamental principle the United States is based on is destructive of some individual views. Yes, you read that correctly. Because the fundamental principle behind the United States is “mind your own business”. This is, we are graphically reminded every time Obama opens his mouth, very much at odds with those individuals who want to mind everybody’s business. Their opinion is absolutely squelched in a free society, and we made no bones about that fact when we kicked out the king. In theory, it could even be defended too zealously and make everyone’s life difficult with those same old shades of Orwell. But if you’re listening at your neighbor’s door for signs of insufficient freedom, I’m wondering if you might not be minding your own business. In any case, people who think a libertarian society looks like a never-ending stream of McCarthian witch-hunts (I’m looking at certain penny-ante philosophers in the game industry who believe they are much smarter than they are) seem to be confused about whether libertarians want a bigger or smaller central government.
And here we move on to my broader point. Many libertarians see the dissolution of borders as a necessity of carrying libertarian thought to its natural conclusion. By that I mean that, as a general rule of thumb, we believe less government is better. Obviously, then, absolutely no government would be best, right? And this is where I bring up the tragedy of the commons.
The tragedy of the commons, in the very unlikely case that you have not heard, explains the problem of resource management, usually with the example of grazing animals and farmers. A grazing area where there are no property rights tends to turn into, say, the Sahara desert. The farmers have every incentive to graze as much as they can and no incentive to seed or maintain the land when it will just get trampled in the process. If the farmers parcel the field, and each own part of it, however, then the land stays in much better shape. Each farmer has reason to get more out of the land in the long run, rather than only getting whatever resources he can grab now. He has incentive to maintain rather than strip the property.
I think of that as the most basic case of the tragedy of the commons. But it applies to countries as well. And in a richer and more complex way, because a country is not merely a landmass and the set of resources it is on, but a unifying principle that the people on that land are bound by. Many countries use ethnicity (or more accurately, the culture associated with an ethnicity, since melanin and facial features are infertile ground for agreement), or religion (like most of Europe and some of the middle East). Some, where that would be impossible, use a common history (this is India’s excuse, as near as I can tell). And most every failed state on Earth can’t decide (giving you the rest of the middle East, most of Africa, much of South America… it’s a popular choice). All of these things except the last are shorthand for a set of ideas, encapsulated by the ideals of a certain culture, the teachings of the religion, or the lessons of the history. In the last, people agree to disagree, and they do it with Kalashnikovs. And then there is America, one of a select few founded explicitly on ideas, cherry picked and synthesized with intent. Certainly the only one I know of that hasn’t torn itself apart… yet.
To explain how the foundational principles of a country relate to the tragedy of the commons I’d like you to go back to the scenario of the parceled land. Let’s suppose these farmers live in a governmental vacuum. There is no place to register the claims. When a perfect stranger comes along, who is not privy to the pact, he’s as likely as not to accidentally graze the pasture, unaware there’s any reason not to. How do you stop him? You can put up fences, of course, and stand armed shifts around the land. This deals, at least, with unintentional vandalism.
But with the solution comes other problems. For the sake of argument we’ll say that this is mighty juicy farmland we’re sitting on here. Now that you’ve prevented casual intrusion, rustlers become the major problem. So the land doesn’t just need people constantly on guard, it needs a lot of them. But the farmer has other duties. There are two directions he can go.
One is to get together with his family and muster enough people to handle all the tasks. You can post the teen boys and young adults on guard duty, have the older people at home to raise the kids, and the younger people tend your cows. What you’ve formed now is a tribe: a group held together by family ties and designed to secure the property of that group while still allowing people to do the necessary work to help it grow and thrive.
The other is to get together with your neighbors and find some common ground on which to build partnerships to get this work done. You could base it on a common set of values, a common religion, or just on common enemies if things are bad enough. As long as the deals are struck, their actual basis is secondary. Now you pitch in for a somewhat larger, more imposing fence around the whole pasture, and build smaller fences on the inside, mostly to denote property lines since you know everyone who’s in there. Everyone’s got sons manning that wall, and you’ve become a very basic city-state. This is how cities like Rome started (Well, mostly. Most city-states start out semi-demi tribal. But in practice that just means tribes rather than individuals get together as described.).
Unlike a tribe, city-states are flexible. You don’t have to exert any effort just to add people to the group (though you might take a shot at it on your own time anyway). You don’t have to worry about inbreeding. All you have to do is find someone trustworthy, add to the wall to enclose some extra land, and voila. Of course, if you have any idea how human nature works, you figure out pretty quickly that you need to make some extra provisions. “Trustworthy” means something to you and something different to your friend. You need some clear accounting of the rules, because the grandchildren of friends of friends of friends are more than likely going to need a refresher. You start needing internal rules to moderate how rules are made. And in the same vein, you quickly need to start putting in provisions regarding who can come in.
Our city-state farmers and our tribal farmers alike have a bigger problem, too. Rustlers can make arrangements of their own, mirrored to their prey. That could be the barbarian horde or the Barbary States, for example. Such groups represent credible threats even to well-armed city states. Another problem is fellow ranchers, who look next door and see territory they’d like to get a piece of. How do we respond to these problems? Well, when we start getting up the level of armament needed to maintain a city-state, we’re talking about enough raw force to maintain control of a lot more than just a little walled compound. Not as effectively, to be sure. But land between city-states doesn’t take as much of a commitment to control, because there’s usually no one to say you can’t have it. You just need enough minimal force to patrol it. Then you concentrate forces anyplace a threat rises.
A lot of libertarians don’t like this bit of the story. Once land starts being taken over by people who don’t actually have any immediate use for it, it’s arguably not being used in the best way possible. It has a landlord, but the landlord is absentee. Superficially, it seems hard to dispute. The US seems to have entire states worth of land it’s not doing much with. That’s to say nothing of national parks, which we’re proud of not doing anything with. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
There are, in fact, a number of reasons why borders must be established at this point, and why land must be controlled even if it is not being used. The most basic reason, underlying the more tangible ones, is that nature abhors a vacuum. It may not seem as though that’s a justification, and it wouldn’t be, if it were possible to reason with a Julius Caesar or Genghis Kahn. But as brutish as it sounds to say “If we don’t do it, someone else will”, the world is full of people who (shock!) never bother to build an ethical case before they do things. If there are practical advantages to owning more land, therefore, and a city-state has the capacity to, it will do so. And as it happens, there are advantages, both in resources and in trade.
The need for resources is obvious. So obvious, in fact, that it is easy to overstate. Nevertheless, our resident ranchers have by now brought a great many people into the fold. They have gunsmiths for the boys on the wall, tanners and tailors to make things from dead cows, cooks and butchers to make food from dead cows. These people, in turn, want metal, wood, various chemicals, various machines, spices, of course the dead cows… and the list goes on and on. Some of these, the raw materials, can be found at home. Strategically, there’s a drive to get as much as you can at home, too, so that the potentially-unfriendly neighbors don’t have it.
But there are all sorts of limits on this. Where do the best craftsmen work? Where are the best places to get raw resources? Where are the best techniques used? The answer isn’t going to be “at home” for everything. Our cow farmers need trade. They’re fortunate. Their neighbors need trade too! At least, they need trade as long as they can’t just come in and take things. And that’s the rub. That’s the other reason you need territory… it establishes buffer zones. When you own the land around yourself, and can enforce that ownership, it’s a lot harder for other states to come knocking at the door to demand you hand things over. You may laugh at that idea, but having forewarning and space to prepare if an assault comes over the border is beyond strategically valuable. If you need an analogy, I have heard that some Japanese forts were built with open doors and a clear hall all the way to the head honcho. The assumption was that invaders would get in. The point was to control how they moved and fought in the long, long journey inwards. Similarly, an invader crossing into the territory of another nation must travel some distance to reach its capital, space in which the invaded country has opportunities to defend itself before it is truly desperate
This, more than the raw materials extracted from the land itself, is what makes owning the additional land valuable. The land could be the most barren, boiling, salted, oil-free desert on earth and still be more valuable than the richest temperate farmland, if it provides a nation the leverage it needs to defend itself and hence enables it to trade with its neighbors rather than be overrun by them. The state establishes ownership of a territory and in the very act of doing so derives value from it. It may not be exploiting it in the optimal industrial or agricultural manner, but so long as it is enabling the industry and agriculture in other places, what it is doing is valuable.
This gives us some idea of how modern states form. Now let us pull the camera back again and reflect on the lessons of this journey. Many Libertarians frame the world as a contrast of reason and force. They support the free market, and voluntary cooperation among individuals in general, because it derives from reason. Since the state is undeniably force… the ability to force compliance of others with borders and the ability to force compliance of its own with the ground rules on which the city-state is based… they oppose the state as a philosophical entity entirely.
They forget that while exchange is based on reason, it is only vouchsafed by the threat of force. Very few pay for what they can take without consequence… that is human nature. And there is no way to prevent people from grouping together in some way, because the first group to do so will be at a disproportionate advantage relative to those around them. You will find few advocates of individual human achievement stauncher than I, but I like to think I’m also rational. It is romantic to imagine there could be one individual so industrious and so smart that if a tribe sent a hundred people or a nation-state a thousand to claim the land he lives on, it would be rebuffed. In reality, the larger group will probably hardly notice him among the individuals it routes. People will organize because it’s effective and relatively easy.
Note that this does not mean the state is somehow owed all money merely because it enables all economic activity. A state is fundamentally derived from the consent and cooperation of the governed. This is true even in empires, though “the governed” may frequently represent more than double the number who consent and cooperate. Should the society be dominated sufficiently by people who do not consent and do not cooperate, the society will fall, as indeed empires do, most frequently by encapsulating too much dissent under too little force. To put it in another light, the state is a tool derived from the cooperation of individuals, but not an entity onto itself, any more than a club has independent agency from its owners. The requirements leaders of states levy on their constituents are therefore justifiable only when they are necessary to maintaining the state and its borders. And hence the definition of “necessary” is first expanded, and then finally ignored by the dishonest politicians of the left, who have sunk to using terms like “tax expenditures” for letting you keep your own money. Be wary of the man who thinks of the state as independent of you, and your master, rather than as existing at your pleasure (A brief side note to Halbig trolls. When you whine about the ruling meaning corporations are people, this explains why you’re inverting it entirely. You are, yourself, thinking that because people form a corporation they are superseded by it… that they are, essentially, subservient to their own institution, restrictions upon which dictate the restrictions upon them. And for the most part this explains your regrettable view of the role of government.).
The progression from the classical tragedy of the commons to the level of complexity expressed in the modern state hence explains the necessity of borders. Moreover, it makes the case for the ownership of land by governments, even land that is not being commercially exploited, as a good for those within the domain of said government.
From the foregoing, and in closing, it should be noted that the discussion also explains the fundamental problem with illegal immigration. States may be capable, if their people so wish, of performing humanitarian functions. But they are not, intrinsically, humanitarian organizations. The campus Democrats may meet to discuss how the terrible humanitarian situation in South America gives people from South America a right to come here. So why don’t they invite all of the city’s homeless to their weekly meetings, paying any damages or fees incurred in the process? I wonder, would they say it’d be disruptive and distracting from the club’s actual business?
Nation-states, as I said, have underlying their laws some kind of grander, simpler pact. There is something that brings people together to agree in the first place. The laws are the fine details. Britain, people are fond of pointing out, is a country founded on an ethnicity and its associated culture. They are hence paying a price… economic, and legal… for frantic multiculturalism and lenient immigration. And is it because the new immigrants are upset that their fellow Brits can’t tan as well? Or are they enraged because they came into the country with a different idea of what society should be based on, one that cannot ever be reconciled? A liberal decides it’s the prior. A conservative can see the patent problem, that people who believe vehemently that society should be based on the Qur’an (And it is the Qur’an. London’s Catholics, for example, are not beheading guards and demanding independent neighborhoods run according to cannonical law.), cannot be good citizens of Britain, a country whose whole motivation and justification is founded in British cultural traits. Instead of bringing in Brits with the misfortune of being born abroad, they’ve brought in any refugee who could get together the paperwork. No doubt, these people come from desperate circumstances, but that in itself does not qualify a person for immigration (An aside: I am being a little unfair to Brits. I don’t think they have a common idea of what being British is, anymore. Since the empire fell, the principles that used to be Britain… uneasy constitutional monarchy, jingoism, understatement, relative personal freedom checked instead by rigid and complex social rules… are thought of as silly or antiquated. And I wouldn’t argue they’re ideal, certainly. If I thought that, I’d apply for a visa. I will argue that without them, or some other common raft of ideals binding society together, Britain will suffer injury worse than would ever be caused by the flaws in its own history and nature.).
Illegal immigration goes one step beyond even that. At least Britain’s wounds are self inflicted. It is monstrous to suggest we, as a nation, should have no say in who becomes a citizen, when the basis of our society is entirely a philosophy. Children from South America haven’t the slightest idea what the underlying principles of America are, nor do they care. We have enough trouble getting American high-schools students to learn them, and many of them never manage, as the existence of the DNC proves. In that, illegals represent a basic societal threat, especially now. We are bringing into the country people used to living under a strong-man government, right as the Democrats choose to test the limits of the constitution to the breaking point. It doesn’t take any great leap of imagination to suppose they will do what other immigrants have done when allowed into a country whose society they fundamentally disagree with, and continue to hold and exercise their own beliefs. But a strong-man government happens to be antithetical to the basic principles of freedom the country is based on. I do not believe Democrats can be ignorant of this fact. I think they mean to drive the needle of consent among the governed towards centralization of power… their power… and in doing so destroy America’s heart and soul.
And the whole while, they will accuse us of being anti-humanitarian… as they work to destroy the basis for a country whose existence has done more for the well-being of mankind than all the refugee camps in history.