Tragedy of the commons

By Storm Delagora,



The apathetic are apathetic. We are highly unlikely to inspire them to take action. A few might be more resigned than apathetic and they might be open to agorism as a path to real freedom and respect for persons, but overall, a person who is just trying to get by won’t care about our message. That is a sad fact but one we must face.

But what of the zealot? What of the passionate supporter of the state, of laws, of the very structure we oppose?

It is not actual suffering but the taste of better things which excites people to revolt.” -Eric Hoffer

Hoffer was a longshoreman, and some would argue the greatest sociologist of his time. He was never a professional academic, but was a true philosopher of the people. Hoffer is important to those who are trying to sway people towards agorism, because Hoffer recognized and described the nature of the true believer, in his work of the same name. Hoffer noted that the apathetic person is not easily swayed because the apathetic person did not care enough to change. The zealot, the true believer, however, is invested in the belief; to a point that closes them off to change but it also motivates them to hold the “true belief” which allows for them to change, even to the absolute opposite of the current belief.

Those who care about their beliefs, especially if they believe in something more than mere statism, but in liberty or morality, are our best opportunity. We need to give them a taste of better things, better possibilities, better solutions. That said, we have to be smart about how we approach such persons. We cannot use the bullying tactics or dismissive approaches we see so often on social media. We must take their current concerns and beliefs seriously. We must show them the respect that we are asking them to give to our own positions. Some of those are more important to address than others, the tragedy of the commons is one of the more important beliefs for us to face honestly in our discussions with statists.

We advocate the complete absence of government. This comes as no surprise to the readers here, but keep in mind that to the average person, much less the devout statist, this comes as an enormous shock. They cannot conceive of life without the nanny state interfering in every aspect of our lives. The government is so very ubiquitous that most people don’t even realize it. They don’t see the forest because all they have known is the forest. That is why they so often respond with what seems an obvious refutation to the idea of liberty: what about the roads??

While we hear, “but what about the roads?,” so often that we use it as a place holder for thoughtless statist responses of all kinds, this is unfair, and it certainly does not help our cause; but I fear there is little that will change that response on either side. Rather than taking on that perhaps unwinnable challenge, let’s focus on what is the second most common response, at least from people who take a bit of time to consider the idea seriously, that of the tragedy of the commons. Why take any of their responses seriously? After all, they are statists. They are the enemy, right? No. Not at all. They are potential allies. These are the people invested enough in their belief to possibly change their belief.

Tragedy of the Commons is usually understood as an economic problem where individuals have access to a shared resource and act in their own interest, at the expense of other individuals. This can result in overconsumption, underinvestment, and depletion of resources. But that is just the economic side. There is a very real day-to-day concern that the statist is voicing. The broader idea behind the tragedy of the commons is that if something isn’t owned, it will be abused. A park area will be trashed, or sewage will be dumped into the sea, or any of the countless possible examples of the negative impact of the apparent lack of responsibility that can come from the lack of ownership.

That is the essence of the tragedy of the commons that the statist fears. Unlike the roads question, which has been answered ad nauseum by agorists and other anarchists, the tragedy of the commons still needs to be taken seriously. While we all probably have heard of communities coming together to care for common spaces, we have also all seen common spaces trashed or otherwise abused and neglected. A few positive examples is not enough to convince the statist that all common spaces would be so respected in a free society, nor should it be enough to convince anyone. Though those examples demonstrate that it is possible, more is required for our case for freedom to be convincing.

Too often, those of us who promote liberty (which of course must include the free market) simply respond with “the market will take care of it.” This convinces no one. This approach is no different than saying “God will handle it.” This sort of response is one of faith, not knowledge. To sway people to the ideas of freedom we need better answers than glib or faith-based comments. Sure, we know that the market is amazing at solving problems, but those problems have to be popular enough to be addressed, and it is not unreasonable for the statist to say that the tragedy of the commons would not be popular enough for the market to provide a solution.

The statist has a great deal of evidence on their side. They can point to many instances where streets were full of sewage, where rivers were on fire from dumped chemicals, to an irresponsible person starting grass or forest fires by tossing a burning cigarette or improperly doused camp fire. There are many more examples and we cannot honestly deny most of them. They are historical facts.

What we have to do is be able to explain how we can avoid the tragedy of the commons.

The most common response I see after “the market will take care of it” doesn’t appear to me to be very convincing, or perhaps just not appealing, to the average statist. That response is to have everything owned by someone. It is questionable whether that is even possible given the physical nature of many aspects of our world. Philosophically it is dubious as well given the commonly accepted Lockean property creation notion. However the argument generally goes like this: Owners care about their property so they care for it. They not only don’t actively destroy it, they do upkeep. They maintain the property in the condition they see as best. Where there is no owner, most likely, there will be no one seeing to the needs of the property, no one who cares about the property, and therefore no one who cares for the property. That is the common argument for freedom through ownership.

In light of that answer, consider how as an agorist, you feel about the government claiming ownership over all land, such that there is no land anywhere you can go to live freely. I know that I find that extremely frustrating. That is how the statist will likely feel in response to the, “everything is owned”, response. In fact, the situation in practice would not be very different for the person who just wanted to go live and be left alone. We need to recognize this response as reasonable and worthy of concern just as our concern about government control is reasonable and worthy of consideration.

Changing the mind of the statist will likely mean having some way of overcoming that gut reaction. Our job is to come up with that way. We need to describe the situation not in terms of control but rather in terms of care, of emotion, and of practical solutions. We need to tell them how the better outcomes will happen. How individual people being responsible for property will make the “common areas” at least as good as they function today.

We also have to explain all of the obvious problems, such as right of ways, access, and use. How do we address a situation where a parcel of land is surrounded by others without any access to roads or utilities? That is a common example I see raised in such discussions, whether in academia or social media. We must take those seriously and have some sort of reasonable answer.

Simply being right won’t win over statists, or almost anyone at all. We need to walk them through the process, guide them on the paths to agorism. We have to show them that liberty and respect for persons can work and is desirable. We need to be guides, not warriors, particularly not keyboard warriors. It costs us nothing to take their concerns seriously.

I don’t have a ready answer to the tragedy of the commons, but that does not mean that there isn’t one to be found. I am not even trying to offer such an answer with this essay. If we want to bring statists to our side we need to take their concerns seriously, and address them honestly. We need to admit where we don’t have answers, though we can always point to the failures of government to solve the same problem. The tragedy of the commons appears today all around us where the government claims ownership of land and other property. Government is perhaps the worst steward of the land and water given that governments account for all of the top polluter positions in the world and those entities that government protects, corporations, account for most of the rest of the list.

The tragedy of the commons is just one example, one that lends itself well to open and honest discussion. There are many more problems that need to be addressed by anyone seeking to promote liberty and oppose the state. It isn’t fair, but this isn’t about fairness, it is about winning over others to think as we do that no one has the right to control the peaceful life of another person. We must be principled, but also practical. If we cannot answer such questions for ourselves, we will not be able to win over those who already are opposed to us and the ideas of liberty.

Perhaps the greatest feature of agorism that is missing from all other types of freedom ideology, is the practicality of our approach. We find solutions. We create the alternatives that prove government to be unnecessary and undesirable. We demonstrate that the best of humanity is possible. With that in mind we need to distance ourselves from the typical social media level mocking of the concerns of the statist. We need to be principled and practical in our discussions with them. We need to set the example to prove civil discourse happens.

One final note on adopting this approach. Sometimes the statist with whom we are interacting isn’t even our target audience. The Internet has created a great environment for lurkers who may oppose our position, at least at first, but since they have nothing invested in the conversation, they can calmly consider the points made and how those points were made. Just our willingness to listen to the concerns of the statist may help others to take our own concerns, and more importantly our desire for universal freedom, seriously. We can give the lurker and the other in the discussion a taste of something better: respect. We can treat their concerns with respect, and give serious considered answers. That is the sort of taste of something better I believe to be thrust of Hoffer’s assertion.



Storm Delagora

Storm Delagora is a classically trained philosopher, specializing in logic and ethics, with over 20 years experience as a writer, and lecturer, as well as a practicing agorist in the fields of interior and architectural design, and general contracting.


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