The Tragedy of Privatization (Part One)

In 1968, Garrett Hardin posted an article in the magazine Science called “Tragedy of the Commons” and it was an attempt at proving that private property was the most efficient method of rationing goods and maintaining resources efficiently. It is oftentimes used in arguments favoring the privatization of common resources. His theoretical scenario was as follows:

There is a plot of land in the middle of a small peasant town. The plot of land is commonly owned, and is used for grazing; it is open to anybody that wishes to send their cattle there. Each peasant owns livestock and must use that land to feed their livestock. Knowing that each individual wants to maximize what they can get from the fertile acreage, each peasant brings as many animals as they can to the pasture, therefore, ruining the pasture for everyone. This is what Hardin calls ‘the tragedy.’ Each peasant wants to maximize their ‘grazing’ because they knew that if they don’t, somebody else would. Garrett Hardin calls this outcome “inevitable,” which he says makes it all the more tragic. He goes on to say there are two possible solutions to prevent such an outcome: either through regulation by an overseeing government body or through privatization of the common pasture so each peasant is responsible for his or her piece of land.

The original article from 1968 can be found here. And here’s a corresponding video with Garrett Hardin talking about his scenario.

Now, there’s a few issues that arise when Hardin’s scenario is contested in a real world environment. He makes three assumptions that do not stack up to what actually happened in the famous commons of England and elsewhere. They are as follows:

1. Each individual is working to maximize his or her profit.
2. The peasants do not communicate with one another.
3. That the pasture is open for anybody to use freely.

What actually happened in the commons of England, where the peasants lived after being freed from the shackles of feudalistic rule, was very different than Hardin describes. In these small villages, these commoners were very careful not to abuse the land that they had because they knew if they did the entire community would starve. The communicated with one another to prevent such happenings, and overgrazing was for the most part prevented. And since they were not functioning in a money economy, by growing their own food, they had little incentive to grow beyond what they needed – and if more was grown it was for surplus in case of shortages. And finally, these pastures were not open to everyone; it was established by common law, assumed through interaction, that the land was to be used only by those that have agreed to take care of it. Essentially, it was to be used only by the peasants living in the village itself.

Common grazing areas for livestock were a commonplace from the Middle Ages until the beginnings of the modern era. Farms were oftentimes broken up into three sections; one for wheat, one for barley, and one for grazing. This three-section open field was popular even after feudalism collapsed, until the advent of a market economy which specifically required the enclosure of common pastures. So the tragedy Garrett Hardin actually describes was seemingly backwards; rather than privatization of the commons being the solution to overgrazing, it became the tragedy itself.
Gilbert Slater, a British economist and social reformer, wrote a book in 1907 titled “The English Peasantry and the Enclosure of Common Fields.” He describes the coercive methods of enclosure:

Enclosure of the common fields, meadows and pastures, of

any particular village may have taken place in the following
ways : —

(1) By Act of Parliament, viz., (a) by a private Act, (b) under
the authority of the General Enclosure Acts of 1830 and 1836,
(c) by the Enclosure Commissioners and their successors, the
Board of Agriculture, under the General Enclosure Act of 1845
and its amending Acts.
(2) By common agreement of all the collective owners.
(3) By the purchase on the part of one owner of all conflicting
(4) By special licence of the Tudor monarchs.
(5) By various forms of force and fraud.

Commonable waste may have been enclosed in any of the
above ways, and also under the Statutes of Merton and Win-
chester (1235 and 1285), which give Lords of the Manor the right
of enclosing commons provided proof is given that the tenants of
the manor are left sufficient pasture.

Specifically speaking, the most devastating were the Inclosure Acts passed by the Parliament of the United Kingdom that stripped away the rights of common ownership from the local peoples by government force. This completely replaced the common law once understood by the peasant class, and put in its place a codified method of enclosure that many of the poor farmers did not agree to – this was mostly because many were illiterate and did not understand (for the most part only the nobles were educated).

A 17th century poem fully describes the real tragedy this caused to the local folk:

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from off the goose.

The law demands that we atone
When we take things we do not own
But leaves the lords and ladies fine
Who take things that are yours and mine.

The poor and wretched don’t escape
If they conspire the law to break;
This must be so but they endure
Those who conspire to make the law.

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
And geese will still a common lack
Till they go and steal it back.

William Cobbett, an notable English pamphleteer and journalist, recorded what he saw after the land on the Isle of Thanet was appropriated by the wealthy:

“In this beautiful island every inch of land is appropriated by the rich. No hedges, no ditches, no commons, no grassy lanes: a country divided into great farms; a few trees surround the great farm-house. All the rest is bare of trees; and the wretched labourer has not a stick of wood, and has no place for a pig or cow to graze, or even to lie down upon. The rabbit countries are the countries for labouring men. There the ground is not so valuable. There it is not so easily appropriated by the few. Here, in this island, the work is almost all done by the horses. The horses plough the ground; they sow the ground; they hoe the ground; they carry the corn home; they thresh it out; and they carry it to market: nay, in this island, they rake the ground; they rake up the straggling straws and ears; so that they do the whole, except the reaping and the mowing. It is impossible to have an idea of anything more miserable than the state of the labourers in this part of the country.” [1823]

Enclosure did much more than take away common land from the peasants; it was much more elaborate of a scheme. At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, the newly emergent capitalist class in North Britain found a new labour supply – the landless disfranchised peasant class that was distraught from centuries of enclosures. The self-sufficient yeomen was crushed, and what was created was a class dependent on wage labour for which they had to relinquish their self-autonomy to feed their families; they had no choice, they had to work. It was this phenomenon that soon followed suit in much of the rest of the world, for England was a colonial power and its influence was global.

One of the leading forces during the Industrial Revolution were textile mills and these required wool to function. The dilemma was, however, that it required taking away common land from the peasants to raise more sheep. The nobles of Britain than turned to Parliament, because they knew if the government forced the peasants to enclose, they would have no choice. Their lobbying and influence ultimately succeeded, and the majority of the Inclosure Acts were actually passed between 1750 and 1860, involuntarily taking away the land of the commoners.

Many of the emerging industrialists and its supporters called the peasants lazy, and they used such justification in advocating for their usage as labourers. Many Quakers and English Protestants also found laziness, which they saw as sloth (one of the Seven Deadly Sins), to be repugnant to a moral English society. John Bellers, a Quaker himself and an educator, tells of such things in his book ‘About the Improvement of the Physick’ and his other writings and expressed his contempt for such idleness:

“Our Forests and great Commons (make the Poor that are upon them too much like the Indians) being a hindrance to Industry, and are Nurseries of Idleness and Insolence.” [1714]

Thomas Pennet, a noted Enlgish botanist, antiquarian, and noble, wrote of the peasants in his journal in 1772 while in Edinburgh, England and denounced them in the same fashion:

“I was informed that the labor is dear here… the common people not being yet got into a method of working, so do very little for wages.”

“…The manners of the native Highlanders may be expressed in these words: indolent to a high degree, unless roused to war, or any animating amusement.”

He goes on to describe their physique:

“The inhabitant live very poorly… The man are thin, but strong; idle and lazy… they are content with their hard fare, and will not exert themselves father than what they deem necessaries.”

The general attitude of the landowners was much the same. A snippet from Commercial, Agricultural, and Manufactures’ Magazine in 1800 read as follows:

“When a labourer becomes possessed of more land than he and his family can cultivate in the evenings… the farmer can no longer depend on him for constant work…”

This type of mentality was common amongst the industrialists at the time; if the poor were given enough land to be self-sufficient and independent, than they would not be forced to work in the factories. They would be given a choice which would ultimately hurt the industrial North of Britain.

After an analysis of the commons of England, it is apparent that the”Tragedy of the Commons” does not hold up to historical scrutiny. The reality is that peasants lived in the commons for centuries, and it was not until the emergence of a market economy do we see the dismantling of such a system. The ‘inevitability of a tragedy’ that Garrett Hardin theorizes is set in his own limited scenario; one that does not correlate with actual common ownership. The real tragedy here, it seems, is the exploitation of the peasant class from their land and state coercion that was involved in making them work as wage labourers. It is this state-market cooperative dynamic that will become a staple in the capitalist economy in the centuries ahead, and it is even more apparent in today’s globalized economic system – albiet it’s inherent problems are bit more subtle, but all the more the same just on a larger scale.
John Beller’s book: Proposals for Raising a Colledge of Industry (1696)
Gilbert Slater’s book: The English Peasantry and the Enclosure of Common Fields (1907)
A short history of enclosure in Britain can be found here.
An article on how the English people became landless.
These enclosures did not come without backlash. Some info can be found here and here.
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