Reading Time: 5 minutes

I: The Dilemma of the Commons

I don’t usually post purely political essays on Daylight Atheism, as opposed to posts that touch on religion in some way. But the new series beginning with this post is personally important to me, and deserves an exception.

Though I only have anecdotal evidence, it’s my experience that the majority of atheists hold a politically liberal view. The second largest group, a substantial minority, takes a libertarian stance. (Classic conservativism is a distant third.) I know many members of the second group personally – some of them post comments on this site!

At its best, libertarianism is a noble affirmation of individual dignity and freedom in the face of tyranny; at its worst, it is a cynical and selfish excuse for the rich to exploit the poor and tell them that they deserve it. However, even in its best incarnations, I don’t agree with it. Individualism is a fine thing, but so is community. Neither is solely good or solely bad, and terrible things can result from taking either one of them too far without the counterbalance of the other. I believe libertarianism has gone too far toward one of those ends, and in this series, I’ll explain why.

The first and most important reason why I am not a libertarian is the dilemma of the commons. Akin to the famous Prisoner’s Dilemma, this problem consists of a situation where everyone could potentially take more than their fair share, or pay less than their fair cost, for the use of a public resource. The usual solution to these problems is to introduce the notion of private property, which gives people an incentive to take care of their segment of the commons. This is feasible in some cases, but some things – some very important things – are public by their very nature and cannot be privatized. In such cases, the only way to solve the dilemma of the commons is to introduce an overarching authority that has the power to regulate the actions of the players.

In general, the things that cannot be privatized are natural phenomena that do not respect property lines. The abstraction of private property assumes that the actions and effects of a given person can be neatly partitioned off, separated from the rest of the world, so that it is easy to identify who is responsible. But nature itself cannot be divided into a set of hermetically sealed boxes. The world in which we all must live, and which we all depend upon, is composed of an enormously complex and intricate web of interdependencies. Any attempt by humans to draw clean lines through this tangle, identifying who is responsible for X and who is responsible for Y, is bound to end in illogic and futility.

Chief among these is the concept of environmental health. We cannot partition the environment. We all drink the same water; we all breathe the same air. Rivers, streams, aquifers and oceans cross property lines, and pollutants entering the water anywhere on the planet can cause problems almost anywhere else. Take the example of a farmer who lives upriver and a fisherman who lives downriver. The farmer may need to use nitrogen fertilizers to promote the growth of his crops; but runoff from those fertilizers that leaks into the river can lead to blooms of phytoplankton that suck all the oxygen from the water, creating dead zones that suffocate the fish that fishermen depend on for their livelihood. Clearly, private property is not going to solve this problem; both farmer and fisherman need to make a living, both can reasonably claim ownership over their section of the river, and the requirements of each are inimical to the other’s livelihood. And what if the conflict is not with a fisher, but with people who use that water to drink or bathe, pitted against a company that owns another segment of the river and uses it as a waste dump? Whose ownership of one part of that water triumphs over the ownership rights of the other?

Similarly, how is a libertarian system to deal with the problem of air pollution? A state or municipality that insists on building cheap, dirty coal-fired power plants to run its electric grid will emit sulfur, mercury and other toxins into the air, potentially causing smog and acid rain hundreds of miles away. Similar problems occur with the owners of old, inefficient cars. How can private property resolve this problem? Who owns the air? Certainly, no one could ever prove that it was the emissions of one individual polluter that caused any particular problem. And what if the pollutant is not sulfur dioxide or particulates, but carbon dioxide that contributes to global warming and thereby causes destructive hurricanes, droughts and rising flood waters all over the planet? Again, no individual polluter is wholly responsible for these destructive side effects, and yet inarguably, the less greenhouse gas is emitted into the atmosphere, the better off we will all be.

Or, consider a common problem in the American West: homes built in chaparral and other ecosystems that are adapted to fire. After decades of mismanagement, we have learned that our well-intentioned efforts to manage this habitat by snuffing out small fires were a terrible mistake. Regular burns consume the dead wood from these habitats, keeping fires frequent, but small. Trying to suppress fire altogether only leads to tinder building up until a truly gargantuan wildfire inevitably begins, one that is impossible to contain and is far more destructive than small fires would have been. Again, private property cannot solve this problem. How could a libertarian system handle a stubborn landowner who insisted on stamping out every fire that began on his property, putting not just himself but his neighbors in danger?

Also, consider fish and other wild food sources. The ocean cannot be privatized – fish schools can and do move around, after all – and as a result, fisheries worldwide are collapsing as the most sought-after species are fished to extinction. Even worse, as a fish species draws closer to extinction and becomes rarer, demand increases and a catch can command an even higher price, leading to even more fishers seeking it. Unfettered capitalism cannot stop this destructive spiral.

Finally, not all tragedy-of-the-commons situations involve the environment. What about the issue of compulsory state service – for example, a military draft? There is no better example of a Prisoner’s Dilemma situation than this. In a time of war, each individual may reason that he personally is better off not joining the military. But if everyone follows this logic, society in general will collapse and everyone will lose their freedom and possibly their lives. Private property certainly cannot solve this dilemma.

There is no way to get rid of the commons. The products of human industry we can buy, sell and trade, but there are some things that cannot be divided up and that no one person can own. By their very nature, they must be shared and held in trust; either everyone has access to them or no one does. Clean air and water, a safe living environment, responsible use of natural resources, and national security are all among these. A purely libertarian state, with no power to direct what individuals do on their own property, cannot adequately respond to these issues.

Instead, without abandoning the notion of private property – for it is a very useful abstraction in many cases, one that often does motivate people to do the right thing – what we need is a governing authority that can control access to the commons. To address the valid concerns of force and fraud, this authority should be established by mutual agreement of the people, formed by widespread consent and bound by rules governing what actions it may validly take, so that it will not be exploited by one part of society to the detriment of another. But it should not lack the ability to take effective action to prevent the destructive Prisoner’s Dilemma situations that would otherwise arise, where the logic of individual selfishness leads to group suicide. Only a classically liberal, rather than a libertarian, society can effectively address this problem.

Other posts in this series:

Avatar photo

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...