In his famous 1968 essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Garrett Hardin used the metaphor of a pasture in which all farmers are free to graze their cattle. “Each man,” he wrote, “is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit – in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.” Six years later he produced “Lifeboat Ethics,” which is unflinching in its misanthropy and yet has been much on my mind. Using the metaphor of a lifeboat, Hardin argues that it is suicidal for those in the boat to respond from the heart – because those still in the water will eventually overwhelm and sink the boat. “Complete justice. Complete catastrophe.”
While Hardin would surely resonate with many of our presidential candidates, it is in Europe where his argument and his imagery seem most poignant – where images of boats crammed with desperate people and a small Syrian boy dead on a beach have moved many to tears but, with hundreds of thousands in or heading toward Europe, produced few ideas about what to do.
As Germany prepares for 800,000 refugees and Hungary builds a 110-mile fence, we watch, from afar, the unfolding of one of the most agonizing stories of our time. For someone who has recently been in a lifeboat, Hardin’s image will not go away.