A Curious Miscellany of Items Philosophical, Historical, and Literary

Manus haec inimica tyrannis.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Freedom to Breed

In his much-cited 1968 paper “The Tragedy of the Commons”, ecologist Garrett Hardin presented the tragedy of the title as a story about how individual choices which seem rational have irrational consequences at a collective level. Unfortunately, the story has meant many things to many people, so I thought it would be good to take a look at the original context of Hardin’s thought experiment.

The so-called “tragedy of the commons” takes this form: Imagine a fairly primitive community of sheep herders. These herders graze their respective flocks on a piece of common pasture (thus, the term “community”). Let’s say that there are ten herders, each having a flock of ten sheep. Thus there are 100 sheep grazing on the common pasture, which number, let us further imagine, is exactly the carrying capacity of the commons. Any more sheep on the pasture would constitute overgrazing, leading to gradual degradation of the land and decreased well-being for both sheep and community.

Now, a herder might wonder to himself whether it would pay to increase his herd by another sheep. This would constitute overgrazing of course, but he might naturally look at it in the following way. “I would stand to gain $10 from the extra sheep. Unfortunately there will also be $10 loss due to overgrazing, but since that loss is spread amongst me and the nine other herders, my personal share of the loss would be $1. That makes a net profit of $9.”

On the basis of such reasoning, there would be a strong incentive for our enterprising herder to expand his operations, at least up to that point at which the marginal gain of another sheep equals his share of the marginal loss of doing so.

Although Hardin didn’t consider the possibility, we might like to give our herder the benefit of the doubt and credit him with some level of community spirit. Seeing that his actions would impose costs on the community, he might wish to refrain from expanding. But unfortunately, he is also rational and knows that his fellow herders will be doing the same calculations he is doing, and they might not be quite so altruistic. He may have confidence in enough of them doing the right thing, but if he has doubts about enough of them, the pressure not to let oneself become a sucker will begin to pick away at the stitches of his better intentions.

If the other herders are going through the same thought processes (and we have no reason to believe they aren’t), well, the results will be predictable. Choices that seem individually optimal, have disastrous collective outcomes, in the form of overgrazing, sick and malnourished herds, and a poorer community.

How could this poor outcome be avoided? Well, many who have read Hardin’s tale see in it a justification for private property. If that common land were divided into ten plots and distributed to each herder according to the size of his flock, our herder would no longer have an incentive to overgraze, because the loss resulting from his overgrazing would be paid solely by himself.

And if it happened that our herder was better at his occupation than his compatriots, he might have an incentive to pay the other herders for the use of their lands, enough perhaps for them to leave the business completely. And so on (the remainder of the story can be filled out by reading Smith or Ricardo).

Why the Concern with Property?

The fact that so many have seen in this tale a moral about the needfulness of private property is somewhat peculiar.

First of all, the “solution” they see to the dilemma is by no means the only or most obvious one. For instance, as Aristotle pointed out in his Politics, there is more than one way that common ownership can be instituted, not all of which would lead to the disastrous results envisioned in the tale. The herders might (i) hold both sheep and land in common, or (ii) they might — as in Hardin’s version — hold the sheep privately but the land in common, or (iii) they might hold both sheep and land privately, but make the profits common property, to be divided up equally. Although, as Aristotle pointed out, each of these scenarios comes with its own particular problems, there is no prima facie reason why (iii) couldn’t constitute a solution to Hardin’s specifically environmental dilemma. There would be a potential lack of productivity and work incentives, but it is less likely that there would be overgrazing.

Furthermore, there are at least two solutions that countless pastoral and agricultural communities have commonly used since the beginning of time. One is to have a system of common morality that includes injunctions against free-riding at others’ expense. The other is to have a public figure such as a village chief or elder (or council of elders if you prefer) who is responsible for organizing production and making decisions for the good of the community. Both of these methods are consistent with commonalty of property and work surprisingly well in small communities, although a strong system of morals is difficult to consciously institute where it doesn’t already exist.

Other non-private property solutions aside, what makes it peculiar that commentators should take from “The Tragedy of the Commons” lessons about the importance of private property is that Hardin himself intended it to illustrate something else, namely the problem of overpopulation. (To be fair, in other writings, he does specifically advocate for private ownership as a solution to many such “tragedies of the commons”, an example being overfishing).

To Breed or Not to Breed?

Where the seemingly property-obsessed see the enterprising herder as making a decision about production, Hardin is trying to get across the point that he is actually making a decision about reproduction.

The additional sheep represents “another mouth to feed”, the herd represents a family, and the commons is in reality our environment. I think it’s a nice way to look at reproduction, because too often it’s viewed as a basic human right, even where the decision (or impulse, as the case may be), imposes significant externalities in a world of limited resources.

Unfortunately, the logical conclusions of following such a conceptualization are not very comforting to those who, like me, value individual liberty. As we approach the carrying capacity of our environment, we may have to stop viewing procreation with so cavalier an attitude, as adding one more member to the herd may be an act of free-riding at the expense of others.

(I long ago stopped viewing procreation cavalierly, which is why I long ago stopped listening to anything that comes out of the mouth of “environmentalist” David Suzuki. He has five children, while my wife and I made a conscious decision not to have any children. As such, Dr. Suzuki has done far more damage to the environment and left a much bigger carbon footprint on the earth than we could ever hope to do. In truth, Dr. Suzuki free-rides on our restraint, which makes us better environmentalists. Go figure! The funny thing is, Garrett Hardin also ended up having five children, so I suppose I should take anything he had to say with a grain of salt too…)

The problem is, how do you stop people from reproducing without resorting to gross violations of individual liberty? You can’t just go around castrating people. (Or can you? Sometimes when I look around me I can’t help but think that a program of social eugenics might be just the thing… I’m joking of course.) The fact is, so long as we continue to view procreation as a basic human right, any infringement of freedom of procreation is ipso facto an infringement of a human right, of the liberty to reproduce.

Hardin is of the opinion that whatever population control program was implemented, to be effective, would quickly run into problems, especially if we wish to limit reproduction to a rate that still maintains us as a species (which itself begs a valid question). To keep our species in existence, some procreation would need to continue. We would wish to pick a population level, whether it be our present one or another below it, and somehow adjust reproduction to match the replacement birthrate, and maintain that population level.

But the replacement birthrate is 2.1 children per woman, and it is obvious that an individual woman cannot have precisely 2.1 children. Some will have 1 or 2, and others will have 3 or 4 (or more). These latter women — and their mates — would essentially be free-riding on those who have more restraint. And yet, if the population is to replace itself (at whatever level), there is no possibility of avoiding this free-riding. Decisions must be made as to who will be allowed to over-reproduce and who must under-reproduce. But then we find ourselves back in that unpalatable situation of having some authority making decisions about individuals’ procreation, with all the eugenic implications arising therefrom.

Hardin considered the option of “moral suasion”, of a mass propaganda campaign to convince people to limit their procreation. This would have the virtue of not being as intrusive on individual liberty as outright coercion of reproductive choices. But Hardin sees a long-term problem with this too.

Imagine that a program of moral suasion is in place. The population will divide roughly into three groups. There will be some, like me, who accept that new morality and wholeheartedly agree not to reproduce. Call this group 1. I imagine such people will be few, but let’s imagine that there are enough — or that they are respected enough — to influence a second group of people who, although they don’t accept the morality as such, yet still wish to maintain their reputation with their peers in group 1. Call these group 2. And then there will be group 3, who simply don’t care.

Group 3 will breed unabashedly. This will likely cause some instability in group 2 who are not as committed to the new morality and who will not relish the idea of being suckers, limiting what they would otherwise like to do while others get away with it and free-ride at their expense. Nevertheless, for argument’s sake, let us imagine that group 2 mostly holds the line and exercises procreative restraint. Nevertheless, says Hardin, the inexorable callousness of mathematics will thwart the best intentions of groups 1 and 2, at least in the long run.

You see, members of group 3 are less conscientious. Much like David Suzuki, they simply don’t care about the effects of their procreative decisions on others. And, by definition, they have a higher birthrate. In each generation, they will outbreed their more conscientious fellow citizens, grabbing an ever larger share of resources, while the conscientious proportion of the population continually shrinks. In other words, in each generation, the portion of the population lacking procreative restraint will grow larger. And thus, population will increase. Thus, says Hardin, moral suasion may, in the long run, be counterproductive. There is a sort of biological Gresham’s Law implicit in this vision, in which the “bad” breed out the “good”.

Of course, this argument only works if “conscientiousness” is somehow hereditary, right? Well, Hardin says we needn’t insist on heredity in the strict biological sense (which is not proven). All we need accept is that there is a fairly strong correlation between being conscientious and having conscientious offspring, whether this be due to genetics or upbringing. Although it is still a questionable premise, standing in need of empirical verification, it is much less implausible when stated in this form.

(And the fact is, David Suzuki notwithstanding, it does commonly seem to be the people we’d least like to see reproduce themselves that have the greatest number of children.)

And in case you think Hardin is way off base, there is a considerable and growing literature on psychopathy which suggests that it is a heritable condition. And, more chillingly, the birthrate of psychopaths tends to be higher than that of the general population. If true, why hasn’t our species been swamped with psychopaths? Well, for one thing, they make poor parents, which means that through much of our evolutionary history fewer of their children have tended to survive. And because they are greater risk-takers and have a proclivity to high-risk lifestyles, psychopaths tend to die at a younger than average age. They scatter their seed to the four winds and quickly die off, much like mayflies or dandelions. This is a different reproductive “strategy” from that of the tacitly accepted moral norm, which urges us to have fewer children but invest more resources in rearing them and ensuring they reach adulthood. Both strategies may be found in various species, and neither is necessarily unsuccessful from a strictly evolutionary point of view.

(The uncomfortable possibility has been suggested that our more materially comfortable and civilized — and anonymous — society may be a good breeding ground for psychopaths. They can more easily slip under the radar, and society will pick up the slack for their poor parenting. After all, it takes a village to raise a child, right? Only a little research on this issue has been done so far. I would be interested in seeing more.)

Spaceship or Lifeboat?

Besides arguing that effective population control will likely involve infringements of individual liberty that many find objectionable, the tragedy of the commons also brings us face-to-face with some hard questions regarding the movement of existing populations, not just those yet unborn. Most environmentalists, says Hardin, envision the “spaceship earth” model of ecology, in which the entire planet is a commons to be shared among all the earth’s peoples. This has the uncomfortable implication that rich countries must share their resources with the world’s poor, even where — as is commonly the case — those poor come from countries whose people have bred past what would be the optimal population level for either its economic or resource base. To distribute the earth’s “common” resources among all her people would likely require some kind of overarching world government. National governments are too self-interested, too parochial to accomplish this feat. But is it a feat we should wish to accomplish?

Instead of the spaceship, Hardin says that we should adopt a “lifeboat” model. The lifeboats are individual (rich) nations. In the water about them are the world’s poor. These people are spillovers from other lifeboats whose inhabitants increased at too high a rate and sank the boats. Imagine that your lifeboat only has enough space and provisions to take on 10 more people, but there are 100 desperate swimmers in the water surrounding it. To take on all 100 would be national suicide, as would taking on 50, or 20. Perhaps you could take on 10. But then, you also have a moral duty to leave enough and as good for the next generation that will be born on the boat. So it would likely be fewer than 10. And fewer still if you envision that these swimmers will procreate at a rate likely to swamp the ten places reserved for future generations. You cannot with a good conscience take on swimmers at the expense of future generations. The swimmers had their chance, but your children and grandchildren have not yet had theirs. If you wish to leave a spot on the boat for your offspring, you cannot give it away to newcomers.

In a later paper, Hardin gave another reason for preserving the lifeboat model rather than favouring some kind of cosmopolitan spaceship captained by a world government. The lifeboats can be viewed as laboratories, each conducting its own experiments in history. They can look over at one another, observe what they are doing (or failing to do) and see what might work and what doesn’t. Some lifeboats might sink, but the passengers in the other ones might learn and prosper. This is a much safer way of doing things than risking the possibility of all of us going down in the same leaky vessel.

Reasons for Optimism

It seems to me that Hardin’s anti-immigration argument is tinged with more than a little paranoia, and more than a little xenophobia too.

First of all, we must be careful about appeals to the rights of “future generations”, for the appeal is to the rights of beings that do not exist, and may never exist. If something were to happen to make it so that the future generation did not come to be, they could not suffer a loss by this fact, because the agent whose loss it is supposed to be simply does not exist to experience the loss. Grammar tends to bewitch us here; it forces us to refer to “they” and “the future generation”, as if these already had some kind of existence. They do not, any more than unicorns or the tooth fairy do. By this point in my life I suppose I could have scattered my seed to the four winds and sired countless offspring, at least as a matter of bare biological fact. By not doing so, have I committed an injustice on countless unborn? Am I history’s greatest monster? No, because those “unborn” (again, grammar forces us into a corner here) do not exist. And that which does not exist cannot be a bearer of rights. Indeed, it’s at least questionable whether anything can be a bearer of rights, the very concept itself is so utterly mysterious.

Second, refugees are not necessarily poor because of overbreeding in the home country. They may simply be fleeing natural disaster, political tyranny, or civil war (though granted the last is often an outcome of overpopulation). Furthermore, even if there has been overbreeding in the home country, the refugees themselves aren’t necessarily guilty of it. They may have no children, and may themselves be the children of parents who bred below the replacement level. Might we be punishing them for the “sins” of others?

Third, once settled, refugees will not necessarily continue to outbreed the native-born (if they ever did). They may end up adopting most of the customs (including the procreative habits) of the people into which they’ve largely assimilated. World population statistics show the trend: with increasing wealth comes a decreasing birthrate. Given other opportunities to lead meaningful lives, people will forego procreation to pursue them. The education and material security of women and their ability to make decisions pertaining to their own reproduction is crucial here. Given these conditions, there is much to hope for. Which is why it is important that, whatever customs and traditions certain immigrant communities bring to our shores, it is imperative that they be made to leave behind their patriarchy and misogyny (with which we already have enough of our own to contend).

Fourth, amidst all the environmental bad news in the world today, there has been one small bright light that is in my opinion under-reported: the rate of increase of the world’s population has begun to level off. Now, that means population will continue to increase for some time yet, and it’s still unclear if the world’s population will rest at a number that is sustainable. It also seems to be a natural trend for which we can take little credit. But still, it is cause for hope.

Some Strange Parting Thoughts

Despite his ignorance about immigration, Hardin does pose one question that in my opinion we have not adequately considered:

“In the welfare state, how shall we deal with the family, the religion, the race, or the class (or indeed any distinguishable and cohesive group) that adopts overbreeding as a policy to secure its own aggrandizement?”

Such groups exist. We all know they exist, although I won’t name any for fear of legal repercussions. Luckily, the policy of overbreeding has not been notably successful in this country. But that could change. And we need not live in a welfare state nor even be resource-scarce for the question to press on us. If we use Hardin’s “tragedy of the commons” as our conceptual compass, then how are we to deal with such groups?

In a multicultural society, if we take official “multiculturalism” seriously, perhaps we might think about viewing “cultural space” as a common good that must be shared amongst all? Groups that try to breed out others would then be like the herder who tries to move extra sheep into the commons at the expense of others. But then we would have to be willing to do some very unpalatable things to stop the practice, things which, luckily we have never had to seriously contemplate.

On the other hand, could not proselytizing be viewed as a similar wrongful appropriation of common cultural space? I think the idea is too fuzzy to work without gross violations of free expression, which is too bad, because then I could really stick it to those Mormon wackjobs on the Broadview bus.


  1. "By this point in my life I suppose I could have scattered my seed to the four winds and sired countless offspring, at least as a matter of bare biological fact. By not doing so, have I committed an injustice on countless unborn? Am I history’s greatest monster?"

    I have it on good authority that your failure to breed has cost the NFL what would have been the greatest quarterback of all time.

    A good read. Lots o' stuff here.

  2. Thanks MFS.

    No son of mine would ever play football. But that brings up another reason not to breed: the uncanny ability of offspring to disappoint their parents.

    I am quite sure that any offspring I had would be near-sighted and an ill-formed for this bustling world, much like the Spectacled Avenger himself.