“Tragedy of the Commons” Part I

All Landlords Are Terrible Landlords

As an object lesson in support of his thesis that “government is a terrible landlord,” Steven Greenhut (Reason, Dec. 1) recounts his experience trying to get action from his county government over complaints of a poorly maintained, overgrown vacant lot owned by the fire department. 

I started making calls to the appropriate agencies and got the usual bureaucratic runaround. I still remember my call to the weed abatement department, which assured me it would handle the situation. “Aren’t you going to take the address?” I retorted as the person was about to hang up. The county finally mowed the property after the right staffer in an elected official’s office intervened.

As further evidence that “often the biggest slumlords are government agencies,” he mentions two fires on government property — one in a former USMC blimp hangar, and one allegedly started in an underclass homeless encampment. 

(He went on to complain, incidentally, of the problem of “tent cities” on government-owned vacant lots. The primary evil of the “homeless crisis,” apparently, is that large numbers of homeless people are allowed to exist on government property without being forcibly cleared off — and not that they’re homeless because landlords had the power to evict them in the first place.) 

Greenhut concludes with the “clear” lesson: “When everyone owns something, no one does.” In support of that lesson, he links to a 35-year-old article at FEE  titled “Communal vs. Private Property Rights.”

The article is, predictably, a dumpster fire of lazy right-libertarian cliches. And, predictably, it explicitly cites Garrett Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons.” 

A great deal of scholarship has been devoted to shredding Hardin’s historically illiterate article since then — among them Elinor Ostrom’s Governing the Commons and J. M. Neeson’s Commoners. And I suppose it’s a good sign that Greenhut merely links to an article whose central talking point comes from Hardin, perhaps hoping to endorse Hardin indirectly while maintaining a degree of plausible deniability. But one does not, presumably, go all the back to the 1980s for an article to link in sole support of a comment, if their agreement is only tangential.

At any rate, the article Greenhut appeals to as an authority is utterly vacuous, starting with its thesis statement:

When the property rights to a resource are communally held, the resource is often abused. In contrast, when the rights to a resource are held by an individual or family, conservation and wise utilitization [sic] generally result.

The Hardin reference is in the context of “Cattle Grazing on the English Commons.”

In a famous 1968 essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Garrett Hardin used the England commons to illustrate the problems of communal ownership. In the sixteenth century, many English villages had commons, or commonly held pastures, which were available to any villagers who wanted to graze their animals. Since the benefits of grazing an additional animal accrued fully to the individual, whereas the cost of overgrazing was an external one, the pastures were grazed extensively. Since the pastures were communal property, there was little incentive for an individual to conserve grass in the present so that it would be more abundant in the future. When everyone used the pasture extensively, there was not enough grass at the end of the grazing season to provide a good base for next year’s growth. Without private ownership, what was good for the individual was bad for the village as a whole.

In order to preserve the grass, pastures were fenced in the enclosure movement. After the enclosure movement established private property fights, overgrazing no longer occurred. Each owner had a strong incentive to protect the land.

The authors also mention the case of the Indigenous Montagnais people in the Labrador Peninsula.

When French fur traders came to the area in the early 1600s, the value of beaver pelts rose. The Indians hunted them more intensively and the beaver became increasingly scarce. Recognizing the depletion of the beaver population and the animal’s possible extinction, the Montagnais began to institute private property rights, as Harold Demsetz has discussed in a 1967 American Economic Review article, Each beaver-trapping area on a stream was assigned to a family, which then had both the incentive and the ability to adopt conservation practices. A family never trapped the last remaining pair of beavers in its territory, since that would harm the family the following year.

For a time, the supply of beavers was no longer in jeopardy. However, when a new wave of European trappers invaded the area, the native Americans—unable to enforce their property rights to the beaver or to their land—abandoned conservation. They took the pelts while they could. Individual ownership was destroyed, and conservation disappeared with it.

It’s hard to know where even to begin with this mountain of bullshit, but I’ll try. 

First of all, even Hardin stipulated that his “tragedy” applied only to unmanaged commons, and that managed commons could function quite effectively:

Some of the common pastures of old England were protected from ruin by the tradition of stinting — limiting each herdsman to a fixed number of animals (not necessarily the same for all). Such cases are spoken of as “managed commons,” which is the logical equivalent of socialism. Viewed this way, socialism may be good or bad, depending on the quality of the management. 

Of course this is still intellectually dishonest, insofar as it neglects to mention that managed commons were the norm. And as Neeson points out, in those cases where commons were mismanaged, it was usually because the lord of the manor, who had a disproportionate share of grazing rights in the common pasture, took advantage of his superior power in order to abuse the rules — and of course it was this same gentleman who came to the rescue and solved the “problem” by enclosing the land. As Cool Hand Luke would have said, “Wish you’d stop being so good to me, cap’n.”

As for the Montagnais, the significance of the story is just the reverse of the authors’ framing. As communal owners, they assigned beaver-trapping areas to families in exactly the same way a premodern European village would assign pasturing rights to a family, or distribute strips of land in the open fields to each household. In other words, the incident is actually an illustration of commons management.

There are plenty of other problems with right-libertarians’ fondness for Hardin. For one thing, if you want to argue that it was good for the landed classes of England to steal the commons from the peasantry because they would manage them better, how are you going to consistently condemn the Kelo decision’s identical defense of eminent domain? For another, there’s some irony in the fact that Hardin — who was both a diehard Malthusian and a racist, obsessed with the prospect of nonwhite immigrants overwhelming the carrying capacity of the land — tends to be lionized by the same folks who regularly denounce Malthusianism.

And if defenders of capitalism think communal property is bad, they’ll be shocked to learn about the modern corporation. Legally, the corporation is not the property of its shareholders, either severally or collectively. Its plant and equipment, as well as its intangible assets, are all the property of a fictitious corporate person — a collective entity, in other words. A share of common stock simply confers a set of limited and strictly defined rights, including voting rights subject to heavy regulation by a largely self-perpetuating managerial oligarchy. In other words, the corporation is every bit as collective as any common pasture in Merry Olde England. 

Getting back to Greenhut, he might put his experience with the local government bureaucracy in perspective by taking a look at what it’s like to deal with the private equity and other asset management companies that have been snapping up multi-family housing over the past couple of decades. The purchase of an apartment complex by private equity is an inevitable harbinger of rent increases, unresponsive management, decay, and neglect. Deferred maintenance and slumlord conditions are typical in apartment complexes acquired by asset-management firms. 

“We would be told for weeks on end that requests for repairs were awaiting corporate approval,” according to one resident of the Olume apartments in San Francisco after Greystar bought them out. The owners’ response to complaints of broken appliances was straight out of Brazil:

When Titus’ refrigerator and, later, her washing machine broke, she said building staff simply scavenged replacements from other apartments instead of getting the broken ones fixed or buying new ones. The shuffling was so extensive that when she had a problem with a replacement refrigerator and staff brought yet another one to her unit, she peered inside to find labels she had affixed there herself, months before. She realized staff had given her back her original appliance. It still leaked, she noted.

Greenhut gets it halfway right. The Hayekian principle that things are best managed by people in direct contact with them, with a personal interest in taking care of them, is entirely correct. But imagining that this description fits some property management company contracted out by a real estate baron, or by a private equity firm headquartered at the other end of the country, is nonsense. The lesson, if anything, is that absentee ownership as such — especially by a bureaucratic entity, whether government or corporate, whose management does its best to remain incommunicado from tenants or anyone else — is bad.

A thoroughgoing application of Hayekian principles would be, first, to undo the mass expropriation of land and forcible imposition of capitalist property rules which took place in early modern times, and restore land to the commons through such vehicles as local, democratically governed community land trusts; and, second, to convert apartments and other multi-family dwellings into self-managed cohousing.

As usual, the best deconstruction of capitalist power relations is the capitalists’ own stated principles.

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The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory