Colin Strang or Garrett Hardin: Which one do you believe?

M: You seem now to be in the paradoxical position of saying that if everyone evaded [e.g., paying taxes], it would be disastrous and yet no one is to blame. . . .But surely there can’t be a disaster of this kind for which no one is to blame.

D: If anyone is to blame it is the person whose job it is to circumvent evasion. If too few people vote, then it should be made illegal not to vote. If too few people volunteer, you must introduce conscription. If too many people evade taxes, you must tighten up your enforcement. My answer to your ‘If everyone did that’ is ‘Then some one had jolly well better see that they don’t’. . .

Colin Strang, philosopher, “What If Everyone Did That?”, 1960

Eight years later, we get Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy of the Common, whose answer to “What if every herder did that?” is: “We must admit that our legal system of private property plus inheritance is unjust–but we put up with it because we are not convinced, at the moment, that anyone has invented a better system. The alternative of the commons is too horrifying to contemplate. Injustice is preferable to total ruin.”

Get real: We’ve always known the better question is: Whose job is it to ensure overgrazing doesn’t happen? Which, to be frank, continues to be the same as asking: Whose job is it to define “overgrazing”?

NB: One of the biting ironies is that Hardin’s explicit piece on morality took no account of Strang’s essay, which was among the most cited and anthologized in collections on ethics and morality at that time.

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