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Anarchy and the problem of the commons

by Stefan Molyneux

Ask almost any professional economist what the role of government is, and they will generally reply that it is to regulate or solve the “problem of the commons,” and to make up for “market failures,” or the provision of public goods such as roads and water delivery that the free market cannot achieve on its own.

To anyone who works from historical evidence and even a basic smattering of first principles, this answer is, to be frank, outlandishly unfounded.

The “problem of the commons” is the idea that if farmers share common ground for grazing their sheep, that each farmer has a personal incentive for overgrazing, which will harm everyone in general. Thus the immediate self-interest of each individual leads to a collective stripping of the land.

It only takes a moment’s thought to realise that the government is the worst possible solution for this problem – if indeed it is a problem.

The problem of the commons recognises that where collective ownership exists, individual exploitation will inevitably result, since there is no incentive for the long-term maintenance of the productivity of whatever is collectively owned. A farmer takes good care of their own fields, because they want to profit from their utilisation in the future. In fact, ownership tends to accrue to those individuals who can make the most productive future use of an asset, since they are the ones able to bid the most when it comes up for sale. If I can make ten thousand dollars a year more out of a patch of land than you can, then I will be willing to bid more for it, and thus will end up owning it.

Thus where there is no stake in future profitability – as in the case of publicly-owned resources – those resources inevitably tend to be pillaged and destroyed.

This is the situation that highly intelligent, well-educated people – with perfectly straight faces – say should be solved through the creation of a government.

Why is this such a bizarre solution?

Well, a government – and particularly the public treasury – is the ultimate publicly-owned good. If publicly-owned goods are always pillaged and exploited, then how is the creation of the largest and most violent publicly-owned good supposed to solve that problem? It’s like saying that exposure to sunlight can be dangerous for a person’s health, and so the solution to that problem is to throw people into the sun.

The fact that people can repeat these absurdities with perfectly straight faces is testament to the power of propaganda and self-interest.

In the same way, we are told that free-market monopolies are dangerous and exploitive. Companies that wish to voluntarily do business with us, and must appeal to our self-interest, to mutual advantage, are considered grave threats to our personal freedoms.

And – the solution that is proposed by almost everyone to the “problem” of voluntary economic interaction?

Well, since voluntary and peaceful “monopolies” are so terribly evil, the solution that is always proposed is to create an involuntary, coercive, and violent monopoly in the form of a government.

Thus voluntary and peaceful “monopolies” are a great evil – but the involuntary and violent monopoly of the state is the greatest good!?

Can you see why I began this book talking about our complicated and ambivalent relationship to voluntarism, or anarchy?

We see this same pattern repeating itself in the realm of education. Whenever an anarchist talks about a stateless society, he is inevitably informed that in a free society, poor children will not get educated.

Where does this opinion come from? Does it come from a steadfast dedication to reason and evidence, an adherence to well-documented facts? Do those who hold this opinion have certain evidence that, prior to public education, the children of the poor were not being educated? Do they genuinely believe that the children of the poor are being well-educated now? Do they seriously believe that anarchists do not care about the education of the poor?

Do they believe that they are the only people who care about the education of the poor? Of course not. This is a mere knee-jerk propagandistic reaction, like hearing a Soviet-era Red Guard boy mumbling about the necessity of the workers controlling the means of production. It is not based upon evidence, but upon prejudice.

If the “problem of the commons” and the predations of monopolies are such dire threats, then surely institutionalising these problems and surrounding them with the endless violence of police, military, and prisons would be the exact opposite of a rational solution!

Of course, the problem of the commons is only a problem because the land is collectively owned; move it to private ownership, and all is well. Thus the solution to the problem of public ownership is clearly more private ownership, not more public ownership.

Ah, say the statists, but that is just a metaphor – what about fish in the ocean, pollution in the rivers, roads in the city, and the defence of the realm?

Well the simple answer to that – from an anarchist perspective at least – is that if people are not intelligent and reasonable enough to negotiate solutions to these problems in a productive and sustainable manner, then surely they are also not intelligent or reasonable enough to vote for political leaders, or participate in any government whatsoever.

Of course, there are endless historical examples of private roads and railways, private fisheries, social and economic ostracism as an effective punishment for over-use or pollution of shared resources – the endless inventiveness of our species should surely by now never fail to amaze!

The statist looks at a problem and always sees a gun as the only solution – the force of the state, the brutality of law, violence, and punishment. The anarchist – the endless entrepreneur of social organisation – always looks at a problem and sees an opportunity for peaceful, innovative, charitable, or profitable problem-solving.

The statist looks at a population and sees an irrational and selfish horde that needs to be endlessly herded around at gunpoint – and yet looks at those who run the government as selfless, benevolent, and saintly. Yet these same statists always look at this irrational and dangerous population and say: “You must have the right to choose your political leaders!”

It is truly an unsustainable and irrational set of positions.

An anarchist – like any good economist or scientist – is more than happy to look at a problem and say, “I do not know the solution” – and be perfectly happy not imposing a solution through force.

Darwin looked at the question, “Where did life come from?” and only came up with his famous answer because he was willing to admit that he did not know – but that existing religious “answers” were invalid. Theologians, on the other hand, claim to “answer” the same question with: “God made life,” which as mentioned above, on closer examination, always turns out to be an exact synonym for: “I do not know.” To say, “God did it,” is to say that some unknowable being performed some incomprehensible action in a completely mysterious manner for some never-to-be-discovered end.

In other words: “I haven’t a clue.”

In the same way, when faced with challenges of social organisation such as collective self-defence, roads, pollution, and so on, the anarchist is perfectly content to say, “I do not know how this problem will be solved.” As a corollary, however, the anarchist is also perfectly certain that the pseudo-answer of “the government will do it” is a total non-answer – in fact, it is an anti-answer, in that it provides the illusion of an answer where one does not in fact exist. To an anarchist, saying “the government will solve the problem,” has as much credibility as telling a biologist – usually with grating condescension – “God created life.” In both cases, the problem of infinite regression is blindly ignored – if that which exists must have been created by a God, the God which exists must have been created by another God, and so on. In the same way, if human beings are in general too irrational and selfish to work out the challenges of social organisation in a productive and positive manner, then they are far too irrational and selfish to be given the monopolistic violence of state power, or vote for their leaders.

Asking an anarchist how every conceivable existing public function could be recreated in a stateless society is directly analogous to asking an economist what the economy will look like down to the last detail fifty years from now. What will be invented? How will interplanetary contracts be enforced? Exactly how will time travel affect the price of a rental car? What megahertz will computers be running at? What will operating systems be able to do? And so on and so on.

This is all a kind of elaborate game designed to, fundamentally, stall and humiliate any economist who falls for it. A certain amount of theorising is always fun, of course, but the truth is not determined by accurate long-term predictions of the unknowable. Asking Albert Einstein in 1910 where the atomic bomb will be dropped in the future is not a credible question – and the fact that he is unable to answer it in no way invalidates the theory of relativity.

In the same way, we can imagine that abolitionists would have been asked exactly how society would look twenty years after the slaves were freed. How many of them would have jobs? What would the average number of kids per family be? Who would be working the plantations?

Though these questions may sound absurd to many people, when you propose even the vague possibility of a society without a government, you are almost inevitably manoeuvred into the position of fighting a many-headed hydra of exactly such questions:

  1. “How will the roads be provided in the absence of a government?”
  2. “How will the poor be educated?”
  3. “How will a stateless society defend itself?”
  4. “How can people without a government deal with violent criminals?”

In twenty-five years of talking about just these subjects, I have almost never – even after credibly answering every question that comes my way – had someone sit back, sigh and say, “Gee, I guess it really could work!”

No, inevitably, what happens is that they come up with some situation that I cannot answer immediately, or in a way that satisfies them, and then they sit back and say in triumph, “You see? Society just cannot work without a government!”

What is actually quite funny about this situation is that by taking this approach, people think that they are opposing the idea of anarchy, when in fact they are completely supporting it.

One simple and basic fact of life is that no individual – or group of individuals – can ever be wise or knowledgeable enough to run society.

Our core fantasy of “government” is that in some remote and sunlit chamber, with lacquered mahogany tables, deep leather chairs, and sleepless men and women, there exists a group who are so wise, so benevolent, so omniscient, and so incorruptible that we should turn over to them the education of our children, the preservation of our elderly, the salvation of the poor, the provision of vital services, the healing of the sick, the defence of the realm and of property, the administration of justice, the punishment of criminals, and the regulation of virtually every aspect of a massive, infinitely complex, and ever-changing social and economic system. These living man-gods have such perfect knowledge and perfect wisdom that we should hand them weapons of mass destruction, and the endless power to tax, imprison, and print money – and nothing but good, plenty, and virtue will result.

And then, of course, we say that the huddled and bleating masses, who could never achieve such wisdom and virtue, not even in their wildest dreams, should all get together and vote to surrender half their income, their children, their elderly, and the future itself to these man-gods.

Of course, we never do get to actually see and converse with these deities. When we do actually listen to politicians, all we hear are pious sentiments, endless evasions, pompous speeches, and all of the emotionally manipulative tricks of a bed-ridden and abusive parent.

Are these the demi-gods whose only mission is the care, nurturing, and education of our precious children’s minds?

Perhaps we can speak to the experts who advise them, the men behind the throne, the shadowy puppet-masters of pure wisdom and virtue? Can they come forward and reveal to us the magnificence of their knowledge? Why no, these men and women also will not speak to us, or if they do, they turn out to be even more disappointing than their political masters, who at least can make stirring if empty phrases ring out across a crowded hall.

And so, if we like, we can wander these halls of Justice, Truth, and Virtue forever, opening doors and asking questions, without ever once meeting this plenary council of moral superheroes. We can shuffle in ever-growing disappointment through the messy offices of these mere mortals, and recognise in them a dusty mirror of ourselves – no more, certainly, and often far less.

Anarchy is the simple recognition that no man, woman, or group thereof is ever wise enough to come up with the best possible way to run other people’s lives. Just as no one else should be able to enforce on you his choice of a marriage partner, or compel you to follow a career of his choosing, no one else should be able to enforce his preferences for social organisation upon you.

Thus when the anarchist is expected to answer every possible question regarding how society will be organised in the absence of a government, any failure to perfectly answer even one of them completely validates the anarchist’s position.

If we recognise that no individual has the capacity to run society (“dictatorship”), and we recognise that no group of elites has the capacity to run society (“aristocracy”), we are then forced to defend the moral and practical absurdity of “democracy.”

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You can make use of the following text and video to expand your knowledge and understanding of the topic covered in this unit.

Anarchy And “The Problem Of The Commons”

Can One Person Save An Endangered Species?


Environmental Protection Without The State

Environmentalism, Feminism, And Tyranny

Green Rising: The Dangers Of Political Environmentalism

How Dirty Laws Trash The Environment

Law, Property Rights, And Air Pollution

Recycle Smarter Than A Third Grader!

The Case Against Global Warming

The Sacred Green Cow

Tragedy Of The Commons

The World’s Biggest Oxymoron

Why You Should Love Fossil Fuel

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