Garrett Hardin and
Commons Without Tragedy

Robert V. Andelson

[Reprinted from Land & Liberty, Winter 2003-2004]

On September 14 [2003], Garrett Hardin and his wife, Jane, were found dead in their California home. I had visited with them when I was last in the stale, after which the three of us went lo a seafood restaurant for lunch. Hardin was a seminal thinker in the field of population and environmental theory. The couple were both elderly and in poor health; they belonged to the Hemlock Society [now End-of-Life Choices), which advocates "rational suicide" when life ceases to be worth living.

Hardin, professor emeritus of human ecology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is best known for his much-anthologized essay, "The Tragedy of the Commons," first published (in Science) in 1968. A superficial reading of this work has led some people to regard it as an implicit attack on the georgist paradigm. I was, at one lime, one of these people, and, as such, undertook to refute the essay. A closer analysis of it, however, convinced me that Hardin's basic disagreement with Henry George was not genuine but merely apparent -- one of the many difficulties arising from George's misleading declaration: "We must make land common property." In arguing against "common property" in land, Hardin was arguing against the concept as ordinarily understood, not against what George had meant by the term.

After developing this analysis into a paper, I sent a draft to Hardin to make sure that I had not misrepresented his position. He replied with a long and gracious letter, confirming my interpretation. In it, he remarked: "I have known ... of Henry George's work for a long time and always thought it a shame that he could not have been born two centuries earlier and laid out the ground rules for the development of the New World."

This is not to imply, of course, that he agreed with George's airy dismissal of the potential problem of overpopulation -- the latter's contention that "the earth could maintain a thousand billions of people as easily as a thousand millions." Hardin was very much a Neo-Malthusian. But so was Harry Gunnison Brown, the premier academic georgist of the twentieth century. Recognition of the truth and importance of Henry George's essential thrust need not commit one to accept everything he said.

Garrett Hardin and 1 came to be good friends. I deeply regret that he and Jane eventually found life intolerable, but respect their decision. The most useful tribute that I can pay his memory is to underscore the fact that he was essentially sympathetic, not hostile as has so often been assumed, to georgist reform.

Andelson's paper and Hardin's response to it are published in the book Commons Without Tragedy, published by Shepheard-Walwyn.