Saturday, June 4

The Tragedy of the Commons

Why are the cattle on a common so puny and stunted? Why is the common itself so bare-worn, and cropped so differently from the adjoining inclosures?

William Forster Lloyd, 1832

A common is a pasture that is not privately owned .

The link between the right to private property and freedom is no mystery. Every country where people have human and democratic rights also vigorously protects rights of ownership. We discussed this link in Revolutionary Feudalism and observed that the smaller the circle of ownership becomes in any society, the less rights people have.

Ultimately the shrinking circle comes to define a feudal aristocracy with serfs on the outside. When the circle is infinitely small, there is a god-king inside along with the high priests of the religion that justifies it all, and a population of slaves outside.

Modern bearers of that ultimate power of possession in state ownership of land have all been totalitarian dictators. There, the high priests have become party members and the god-king sits at the head of a politburo. In place of a sun or moon god , there is the glib catechism of Marxist-Leninism which perversely claims to serve its victims..

When land and all the fruits of one’s labor can be taken away at whim there can be no freedom. To paraphrase Trotsky, one of the original gangsters (O.G.s) of Communism, “opposition where the state is everyone’s landlord means death by slow starvation.”

Amidst all the unworkable nonsense that is Communism and Ethiopian Revolutionary Democracy, the control that could devolve to any enterprising O.G. who prayed at the altar of Marx and Lenin was certainly the grand prize.

That is why in an election where there were no victories for the ruling party where observers where present, that same party claimed to win the total support 85% of the population in the countryside.

We discussed the rural experience of Ethiopian revolutionary feudalism in The Wretched of the Earth. and the mechanisms of repression inherited from the Dergue in Defending the Revolution. Rural insecurity and the weight of absolute control are no coincidence, they are entirely matters of design.

Economic prosperity and human rights are inseperable. Garrett Hardin wrote a seminal article called The Tragedy of the Commons that attempts to explain some of the reasons for the economic failures of ‘common ownership‘.
In 1974 the general public got a graphic illustration of the "tragedy of the commons" in satellite photos of the earth. Pictures of northern Africa showed an irregular dark patch, 390 square miles in area. Ground-level investigation revealed a fenced area inside of which there was plenty of grass. Outside, the ground cover had been devastated.

The explanation was simple. The fenced area was private property, subdivided into five portions. Each year the owners moved their animals to a new section. Fallow periods of four years gave the pastures time to recover from the grazing. They did so because the owners had an incentive to take care of their land. But outside the ranch, no one owned the land. It was open to nomads and their herds.

Though knowing nothing of Karl Marx, the herdsmen followed his famous advice of 1875: "... to each according to his needs." Their needs were uncontrolled and grew with the increase in the number of animals. But supply was governed by nature, decreasing drastically during the drought of the early seventies.

The herds exceeded the natural "carrying capacity" of their environment, soil was compacted and eroded, and "weedy" plants, unfit for cattle consumption, replaced good plants. Many cattle died, and so did humans.
Fascinating yet quite logical to us so far. This theory is operative in any setting where so called communal, actually state ownership, is at issue from state monopolies (i.e. Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation) to nuclear power plants (i.e. Chernobyl).

It is the system itself which is structurally determined to bring about failure not the people within who could be wonderfully productive in a different setting. Just subsitute the word bureaucrat for herder and you'll get the idea. Let us look at this again from a different angle to see how individual decisions are made to ruin the common good.
The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected 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. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.

As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. 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.

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.

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.

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.
Thus, when many share land that none own it is natural not to improve land and it is natural to eventually ruin it. The Ethiopian system, for example, is so purposefully absurd and repressive that farmers will not improve their land so that it won’t come to the attention of local authorities. If it does local government gangsters may then take it away to give to political cronies or themselves.

There is no more unproductive economic model ever devised than that Ethiopia’s suffer under today where the people supposedly control the state through a democratic system, thus holding all land in common. Trotsky’s threat of slow starvation is all the more real because state ownership of land is notorious for being the hand maiden of famine.

The Creation of a Nation of Serfs tells of the history and consequences of the Dergue and TPLF policies on the land issue. Marx Reloaded (not Groucho) demonstrates the ideological roots of the Dergue and TPLF policies.

The immediate benefits of true land reform in countries with ill defined property rights are Hernando de Soto’s subject of study and the subject of Billions of Lives Improved! His most revealing observation is that
“Agrarian reform is a process by means of which government assigns lands to the peasants...Until you have universal, well-protected, clear, and transferable private property rights, you cannot have a market economy.

If you take a walk through the countryside, from Indonesia to Peru, and you walk by field after field--in each field a different dog is going to bark at you. Even dogs know what private property is all about. The only one who does not know it is the government."
In China Shows the Way we say how “(w)hen land was assigned to households, output increased greatly” and solved the problem of famine forever. In The Greatest Story Ever Mistold the massive success from even partial liberalization of land is evident because
starting with Deng Xiaoping's reforms after the death of Mao, Chinese agricultural production soared -- so much so that peasants began leaving the farms, going to the cities, looking for jobs, and setting up enterprises.

Despite his Communist Party years, Deng may have done more good for more people than anybody else in history. Thanks to his reforms, over a billion people can now not only feed themselves but export food and shift labor to more productive uses.
Ethiopian political debate during the 1960s and 1970s when Marxist-Leninist assumptions came to dominate political thought revolved around the issue of land reform. However, ‘land to the tiller’ should not have meant ‘land to the politburo’.

Without billions in aid that no other Ethiopian government received, there would be little different today than the era of the Dergue. Every development project from large to small depends on foreign money and dedicated Ethiopians to carry out, despite active interference from the government and its minions trying to gobble up the entire economic pie.

One must wonder what, if anything, has been gained in the intervening decades. Indeed, there are far more uncountable millions at risk today and many millions dead - with no hope of positive change on the horizon. After all, it was the TPLF that was supposed to save Ethiopians from the Dergue’s associated idiocies and inhumanities, instead of extending and refining them.

Make no mistake, Ethiopia’s current rulers know exactly what they are doing. For example, ethnic diversity is a great predictor of economic failure so imagine what effect emphasizing those differences has. Indeed, the whole business of tribally based radicalism has its roots in Leninism and the effort to destabilize native institutions through the manipulation of identity.

Ethiopia’s revolutionary feudal rulers have simply calculated that poverty and dependence on foreign aid serve their will to power more than popular freedom and development.

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