While I was at GMU, Gordon Tullock was working on a book he intended to call “Open Secrets” — things that most people don’t know but ought to. Levy and Peart’s re-discovery of the origins of the term Dismal Science would fall into that kind of category. We all knew something that wasn’t so for an awfully long time.

In prepping to teach the tragedy of the commons a little while back, I actually went to re-read Hardin’s 1968 Science article. Hardin coined the term; students plagiarising shamelessly from Wikipedia would always cite him in their answers. So I thought it worthwhile to look into it. Here is some of what I found.

Freedom To Breed Is Intolerable

If each human family were dependent only on its own resources; if the children of improvident parents starved to death; if, thus, overbreeding brought its own “punishment” to the germ line – then there would be no public interest in controlling the breeding of families. But our society is deeply committed to the welfare state, and hence is confronted with another aspect of the tragedy of the commons.

In a welfare state, how shall we deal with the family, the religion, the race, or the class (or indeed any distinguishable and cohesive group) that adopts overbreeding as a policy to secure its own aggrandizement?

The only way we can preserve and nurture other and more precious freedoms is by relinquishing the freedom to breed, and that very soon.

Hardin’s argument essentially runs as follows. There’s limited space on the planet; available space and resources are a commons given the welfare state. Appeals to conscience as a preventative check on population growth will have dysgenic effects; instead, government regulations on breeding must instead be applied.

We usually look to intervene at the source of the externality. Here, Hardin identifies the welfare state as the source of the problem, then advocates for widespread restrictions on procreation. Wouldn’t welfare reform make more sense? For those even mildly sceptical about government benevolence, handing over control of procreation to the state seems about the worst possible policy.

The insinuations about what should be done with races that overbreed are highly disturbing.

I’ll take Julian Simon over Garrett Hardin any day of the week.