Indigenous Peoples, Political Economists and the Tragedy of the Commons
In “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Garrett Hardin implicitly moved from bounded commons — a pasture or a tribe’s territory — to the case of boundless commons — the ocean, the atmosphere and planet Earth. He insisted on the need for imposing limits on the use of these resources, blurring the difference between communal property and open access regimes. The success of his paper is due in great measure to his neglect of economic, scientific, legal and anthropological literature. His main lifelong focus was on limiting population growth. He could have avoided the conceptual confusion he created by turning to well-known political economists such as John Locke and Adam Smith or, for that matter, jurists, such as Blackstone. Instead, he simply envisioned indigenous lands as an unbounded wilderness placed at the disposal of frontiersmen. Though he eventually acknowledged the existence of managed commons, he had little interest in community rules pertaining to resource exploitation. For him, these were simply moral norms which inevitably became ineffective after a community reached a certain level of population. He also took economists to task for failing to include in their analysis the true environmental and social costs of public decisions. Still, the famous example of the indigenous people of Northeastern Quebec illustrates a shortcoming of his analysis: community members did not act in total isolation from each other. On the contrary, communal norms could prevent an overexploitation of resources or allow for the adoption of corrective measures.