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David Harvey On The Future of the Commons

Clara Heyworth18 January 2011

In a piece for the Winter 2011 issue of Radical History Review, David Harvey argues that the real problem demanding our attention is private property, not the commons itself.

I have lost count of the number of times I have seen Garrett Hardin's classic article,"The Tragedy of the Commons,"cited as an irrefutable argument for the superior efficiency of private property rights with respect to land and resource uses and, therefore, as an irrefutable justification for privatization. This mistaken reading in part derives from Hardin's appeal to the metaphor of cattle, under the private ownership of several individuals concerned with maximizing their individual utility, pastured on a piece of common land. If the cattle were held in common, of course,the metaphor would not work. It would then be clear that it was private property in cattle and individual utility-maximizing behavior that lay at the heart of the problem. But none of this was Hardin's fundamental concern. His preoccupation was population growth. The personal decision to have children would, he feared, lead eventually to the destruction of the global commons (a point that Thomas Malthus also argued). The private, familial nature of the decision was the crucial problem. The only solution, in his view, was authoritarian regulatory population control. I cite Hardin's logic here to highlight the way that thinking about the commons itself has been enclosed all too often in a far too narrow set of presumptions, largely driven by the example of the land enclosures that occurred in Britain from the sixteenth century onward. As a result, thinking has often polarized between rivate-property solutions or authoritarian state intervention. From a political perspective, the whole issue has been clouded over by a gut reaction either for or against enclosure, typically laced with hefty doses of nostalgia for a once-upon-a-time, supposedly moral economy of common action.

Visit Radical History Review for an abstract, and to access the article in full.

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