H ow can we measure the influence of bad ideas? If there is anything to learn from the “system” of social media it’s that bad news travels and expands exponentially while the “good news” is always sentimental and local (seems a “one-off”). Humans are perhaps best characterized by their affinity for gossip (what is the “gospel” after all?). It’s interesting that what might be etymologically considered a positive–god/good + sibb (relative)–has attained a negative connotation. This is a story for anthropologists. The value of how communities organize and relate through time and geography can be read in connotations. So, “gossip”–

Late Old English godsibb ‘godfather, godmother, baptismal sponsor’, literally ‘a person related to one in God’, from god ‘God’ + sibb ‘a relative’ (see sib). In Middle English the sense was ‘a close friend, a person with whom one gossips’, hence ‘a person who gossips’, later (early 19th century) ‘idle talk’ (from the verb, which dates from the early 17th century).

We could also track the social understanding of “idle” which seems to come down to “inactive” generally but gets moralized usage (vain, for example, or useless, or waste). It’s also important to note that the idea of “gossip” becomes sexist in most definitions–it’s the idle chat of women. However, the Proto-Indo-European root for it means “to show, or point out.” It’s the Proto-Germanic where we find the root meaning of “vain” or “bereft.”

Is “moralizing” language a trait of specific groups of people?

I’ve started to move away from my original intention (though you can see how bad ideas and moralizing language might go together).

The idea of the “commons” has intrigued me for probably five or six years and I’ve done a bit of research into it. At its most basic I think it’s fair to say that the commons encompasses (I hope you’ll appreciate that usage) theory and application. You can say the earth is a “commons” and be correct. All resources are available to all creatures to the extent they are attainable.

The Commons was given a bad name in 1968 in the U.S. by Garrett Hardin (a serious crank with very problematic ideas–how an idea from this guy is mainstream is instructive) in a very influential paper called “The Tragedy of the Commons.” The “tragedy” according to Hardin is that “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose…” oh, wait, sorry, rather, that “Freedom in a commons leads to the ruin of all.” It’s fascinating that Hardin’s understanding of a “commons” is not historically accurate in the least. But it is very accurate as regards the individual in a “free” market economy based on capitalist principals of accumulation. Here’s where he thinks he’s described the “tragedy.” I will highlight and interject in the text in order to call attention to the assumptions he makes that do not attain to the historical considerations of actual commons, but instead, reflect the assumptions of “selfish individualism,” or, capitalism.

The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected [first assumption] that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. [wow, it's a "negative" success based on social sins--note too his issue is with "carrying capacity"] Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning [apocalyptic!], that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality [I think this is ironic--as he goes on to "destabilize" it]. At this point, the inherent logic [rather, the inherent logic of educated capitalist self interest] of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.

As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain [a rational being maximizes profit--again, not in the historical commons]. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?” This utility has one negative and one positive component. [ah, the falsification of history by "logical" maths...instead of describing actual cases, Hardin will just make up a scenario]

1) The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal. Since the herdsman receives all the proceeds from the sale of the additional animal, the positive utility is nearly +1. [What Sale? oh, the commons is only a MARKET in this account...that's the goal of all economic activity and the only "value" of life-work.]

2) The negative component is a function of the additional overgrazing created by one more animal. Since, however, the effects of overgrazing are shared by all the herdsmen, the negative utility for any particular decision-making herdsman is only a fraction of -1. [any rational herdsman in a commons will not be "allowed" to overgraze...they operate in common!]

Adding together the component partial utilities, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another…. But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit–in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all. [This is a perfect description of the individual capitalist who must ONLY maximize profit that adheres to himself or his corporation etc.--the Commoner exists in a commons wherein ALL aspects of a shared geography are understood--and the way the resource is "used" must be in concert with all aspects of the commons. Each action is consequential--and the action of each is understood by all as consequential to/for all.]

Some would say that this is a platitude. Would that it were! In a sense, it was learned thousands of years ago, but natural selection favors the forces of psychological denial (8). The individual benefits as an individual from his ability to deny the truth even though society as a whole, of which he is a part, suffers. [Here Garrett Hardin puts his own psychology on display and at this point the reader of this fantastical piece of 1968 backlash agitprop must dismiss him outright for his own diseased view of humanity.]

Education can counteract the natural tendency to do the wrong thing, but the inexorable succession of generations requires that the basis for this knowledge be constantly refreshed. [Frankly, this is the most amazing, tendentious, and yet normative assertion--we must educate AGAINST the idea of the commons, we must educate that we are all greedy by nature, we must then educate that only the perfect economic system (market-based and "rational") can "tame" the rational stupidity of self-interest.]

Hardin’s view of the commons is a creation of his own and springs wholly out of his own political assumptions. Of course this view has been attacked but in its own moment it was the narrative to close the door on any idea that might confer positivity on an entirely non-capitalistic way of organizing life wherein each acts in consequence of the all and in full knowledge of this fact. Where children ARE educated to understand that nature is best exemplified as balance if we imagine it as an ecology of sustenance. Nature, on the whole, cannot be “tamed,” and at best we might slot a human existence into it so that we can stand outside of those aspects which are “red in tooth and claw.” The capitalist industrial/financial organization does indeed stand outside of this–but with only USE and WASTE to show for it. The irony here is that capitalism, requiring constant activity, the opposite of an idleness, is the actual vain form of a bereft way of living.

Garrett Hardin seems to me to represent that imaginary herdsman whose constant addition of bad ideas to our common knowledge has led to the tragic idea that the commons fosters exploitation because of freedom. Hardin wanted to guarantee his own tribe its political and economic dominance at a time when the people of the U.S. were poised to demand a way of living that favored all in common, not the uncommon wealthy usurers of capital strength.


It’s hard to stop writing about this as one knows there are arguments that can’t be fully encompassed. It’s one of those dramas of mechanical “progress” that actually create the real destruction of the commons. So, the single selfish herdsman does not exist. What does exist is the single selfish property owner. This includes the “owner” of “plow technology”–the manufacturer whose market is outside of the commons idea. The plow increases the individual’s labor capacity. He becomes MORE than human. That is surplus. Surplus creates a mind beyond the commons. Inhering in surplus is accumulation and desire. This is the real tragedy.


You might also enjoy the fact that Garret Hardin, 1. has a society of followers and 2. the Southern Poverty Law Center lists him as an “extremist” and “White Nationalist.” Again, remember his very influential article is published in 1968 and perhaps we can simply call it a White (Right) Wing attack on the Fair Housing Act of that same year–which is to say, “The Tragedy of the Commons” is a polemic against Civil Rights.

RELATED: Stand from betwixt me and the Sun…Thoughts on Enclosure

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Douglas Storm is a host and producer for Interchange on Bloomington, Indiana's community radio station WFHB. "Why then do you try to 'enlarge' your mind? Subtilize it..."

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