Of the Philosopher Kings or the Absence of Rule

by Corey Springer


In “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Garret Hardin outlines a number of social and ecological problems associated with the common usage of resources. As he argues, the implications of eventual resource exhaustion lead to social ruin. In this paper, I demonstrate similarities with Ratzel’s Lebensraum theory and advance Hardin’s considerations, scrutinizing his conclusion, of coercive statism as a solution, and instead offer anarchism as the best of possible solutions.

I. To be, or not to be, ruled

To achieve the utopian society is probably an impossible task. Yet, throughout recorded history, this has been the aim of various social and political philosophers. As one of the goals originally set forth in Plato’s ‘The Republic,’ he ascertained that the only way to achieve the utopian society would necessarily be by enthroning a succession of philosopher kings. Plato writes expressing the Socratic notion, “Until kings are philosophers, or philosophers are kings, cities will never cease from ill, nor the human race; nor will our ideal polity ever come into being.” (Republic 473c, 1100.) Clearly, the notion that men must be ruled by a sovereign is an ancient one. However, although Socrates suggested a specific kind of ruler, the detail of the importance of a ruler who is also a philosopher has become lost, leaving only the message of the importance of a sovereign to be inculcated over the course of countless generations. This has had the obvious effect of leading men to believe they should be led. However, though not as widely disseminated, the converse notion of the anarchist society is also as old as Greece.

Unfortunately, due to the modern misapplication of the word ‘anarchy’ being used to reference instances of anomie, there has been recent confusion with the modern usage of the term and it’s classical meaning. For clarity of argument, the term ‘anarchy’ and it’s variants shall be used herein only in the classical sense. The position stipulates that the true path to the utopian society is travelled without lead. According to anarchist philosopher and historian, Peter Kropotkin, one of Plato’s contemporaries, Zeno, “repudiated the omnipotence of the state, its intervention and regimentation, and proclaimed the sovereignty of the moral law of the individual – remarking already that, while the necessary instinct of self-preservation leads man to egotism, nature has supplied a corrective to it by providing man with another instinct, that of sociability.” (Kropotkin, 1910 Encyclopedia Britannica entry “Anarchism.”) Here Kropotkin has made clear that anarchism does not necessarily entail a lack of governance or outright lawlessness, but rather rejects the dependence or allegiance to a state apparatus. By remarking on the importance of human ‘sociability,’ he further acknowledges that social interaction and cooperation must necessarily be considered in the negotiations of anarchists.

By their very definitions the two positions presented here are diametrically opposed and, therefore, mutually exclusive. While indeed either of these two positions may result in a more egalitarian society, the methods employed by these notions of overcoming social ailments are starkly different. In this piece, I shall attempt to demonstrate that when applied to a particular social dilemma, each of these notions of governance may yield a beneficial solution. The problem is thus determining which notion of governance fosters the more perfect society.

II. The Problem of Life and Space

In 1968, Garrett Hardin published a peculiar allegorical social dilemma, known as the “Tragedy of the Commons.” Though theoretical, the piece has practical and immediate implications, as it continues to offer context to the negative environmental results of decades of American industrialism. According to Hardin’s imagined scenario, hypothetical ranchers and their cattle share a field, which he refers to as the ‘commons’. In their initial state, the resources available to each rancher and his cattle, he describes, is enough to sustain them all. However, as rational beings, Hardin argues, the herdsmen seek to maximize their benefit from the available common resource, rationalizing their disproportionate exploitation of it by calculating the overall cost to be less than the personal benefit. As Hardin further explains, the rancher deliberates over the question, ‘what is the utility of increasing my herd by one,’ invariably reasoning, “[the] utility has one negative and one positive component[…] The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal[…]” (Garret Hardin, “Tragedy of the Commons”, 2.) Thus, yielding the herdsman a personal benefit of +1. Hardin continues, “The negative component is a function of additional overgrazing created by one more animal. Since, however, the effects of overgrazing are shared by all the herdsman, the negative utility for any particular decision-making herdsman is only a fraction of -1.” (Ibid.) Hardin concludes, since each of the members of the shared commons are all likely to rationalize their own over-exploitation in this manner, and justly so, overgrazing eventually results. Thus, the field soon becomes barren and useless, consigning all members to ruin. This allegory remains relevant because any limited resource may replace the metaphoric commons, having the nature of its over-exploitation described fairly accurately.

Hardin seemed to regard living space, harkening back to Friedrich Ratzel’s notion of ‘leibensraum,’ as among the most pressing issues. The commons in this case is, quite literally, living space. Hence, unregulated reproduction opens the resource to common usage and over-reproduction results in the exploitation thereof. While virtually every conception with which Nazis associated themselves has become retroactively tainted, the acknowledgement of increasing population density as a serious concern remains valid. As Ratzel has since fallen into obscurity, the new idea of individual carbon-footprints, for example, has emerged suggesting that each human born to live out a full life, on average, has some net negative impact on the environment in a small but significant way, requiring, all things considered, either more living space or a reduction in population. As Ratzel, and later Hitler, concerned themselves with territorial expansion for the expressed purpose of reducing population density, the rational solution to the carbon-footprint concept, that is a reduction in population or, more practically, population density, is virtually identical to that put forward by Ratzel; only the method is distinct. Clearly, since there is no alternative planet which we can use to dissipate the now globalized human population, the only solution would have to entail population reduction of some sort, lest the problem become exacerbated, resulting in the mass misery of overpopulation and other peripheral problems.

Hardin deliberately referred to his dilemma as a tragedy in the classical sense, as he found this dilemma to contain “the essence of dramatic tragedy… resid[ing] in the solemnity of the remorseless working of things.” (Ibid) He continues, “[The] inevitableness of destiny can only be illustrated in terms of human life by incidents which in fact involve unhappiness. For it is only by them that the futility of escape can be made evident in the drama.” (Ibid.) It seems to some degree Hardin regarded this problem as somewhat unworkable. Yet he nonetheless attempted to discover a solution, as social and political philosophers have done for millennia. Despite such a pessimistic thesis, Hardin faithfully attempted to outline a remedy, first examining private ownership and finally settling on the necessity of social coercion.

III. The Insolvent Solution

Since Hardin’s 1968 propounding of this problem, the most common solutions presented suggest the privatization of resources. Such propositions, most often presented by capitalists, have exhibited some successes regarding wildlife refuge and ecological restoration, for instance. As the argument goes, in the context of Southern Africa, the privatization of hunting ranches presents a benefit to the land owner to preserve wildlife populations, an incentive that would not be present in public space. Considering successful re-population of various species within the Southern African Developmental Community (SADC), some data exist that implies this capitalist solution is viable. (See Hunting Legends. “The Hunter’s Role in Conservation.”) Though such success does not justify the assumption it is the best of possible solutions. Hardin immediately recognized the danger of privatizing commons. As he wrote with regard to pollution:

“The rational man finds that his share of the cost of the wastes he discharges into the commons is less than the cost of purifying his waste before releasing them. Since this is true for everyone, we are locked into a system of ‘fouling our own nest,’ so long as we behave only as independent, rational, free-enterprisers[…] Our particular concept of private property, which deters us from exhausting the positive resources of the Earth, favors pollution. The owner of the factory on the bank of a stream–whose property extends to the middle of the stream, often has difficulty seeing why it is not his natural right to muddy the waters flowing past his door.”(Hardin “The Tragedy of the Commons” p.3)

The notion of privatization quickly collapses into a question of utility whether the social or ethical costs incurred outweigh the perceived benefit. One must ask if the preservation of the animal in exchange for, perhaps, the destruction of their habitat or commoditization of their lives is truly a viable or even ethical solution. (See arguments advanced by the organisation, Hunting Legends.) Moreover, if the current capitalist model is the only one to be considered, as we presently see, people are barred or restricted from both ownership and access, which raises questions of which members of society have the right to ownership. Thus, if privatization does not prove an adequate solution to the dilemma at hand, then it seems that we must conclude that the state ought to be the only rightful custodian of the commons. However, it appears this next consideration must involve some form of coercive regulation.

IV. Rule by Piety or Iniquity

The Roman poet, Juvenal presented the question, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” or “who will ward the warders?” The question compels consideration of the danger to be expected in relinquishing collective power to a centralized sovereign. It subtly bears the mark of the common anarchist critique of the legitimacy of state power. But more specifically, it illustrates a difficulty common to a number of governmental styles, from pure monarchs to the quasi-oligarchic nature of representative democracies. The problem Juvenal expressed lies in the ever-present threat that the sovereign may act instinctively upon self-interest, causing great detriment to the rest of the members of society. Yet, eons of conditioning have obscured what seems to be man’s natural inclination to self-governance or disinclination to subordinance. Working within this frame of thought, Hardin suggested implementing coercive means to deter over-exploitation of the commons. First examining the feasibility of altering morality, such that over indulgent behavior, such as having too many offspring, induces shame, he quickly concludes a twofold problem that arises from this solution:

1. Concerning the problem of over population, only those who appeal to conscience would be adversely affected by this new moral arrangement. Considering phenotypic survivability, that is insofar as we can classify an appeal to morality as a phenotypic characteristic, humanity would thus be split into unconscientious breeders, which he calls Homo Progenitivus and conscientious abstainers, which he calls Homo Contracipiens. The resultant society would witness the rise of the former and the decline of the latter as moral appeal would become a recessive characteristic. (Hardin 1968 p.4.)

2. Hardin quotes Nietzsche, suggesting “a bad conscience… is a kind of illness.” He continues, “For centuries it was assumed without proof that guilt was a valuable, perhaps even an indispensable, ingredient of the civilized life. Now in the post-Freudian world, we doubt it… No good has ever come from feeling guilty, neither intelligence, policy, nor compassion. The guilty do not pay attention to the object but only to themselves, and not even to their own interests, which might make sense, but to their anxieties.” (Hardin quoting Paul Goodman (Paul Goodman, “Books,” New York Review 10, no. 8 (May 1968): 22).) With the uncertainty of the pathological consequences of guilt-tripping an entire population, Hardin thus calls this method into question. (Hardin 1968 p.4)

The Alternative Hardin seems to settle on by the end of his essay places the responsibility of deterring over-exploitation on the state through coercive means. He writes, “The social arrangements that produce responsibility are arrangements that create coercion of some sort.” Hence, as he asserts, “mutual coercion is mutually agreed upon,” though he rejects the legitimacy of any other type of coercion. (Hardin 1968 p.5) Whenever a state apparatus is present, it would automatically be implicated in the process of coercion. While Hardin seems to acknowledge this apparent detriment, he rationally defends it stating, “An alternative to the commons need not be perfectly just to be preferable.” (Ibid.) Indeed with environmental threats looming, if we are to continue to regard the interactions amongst humans as competitive relationships, then state mandated coercive measures to curb over-exploitation of resources is a perfectly rational conclusion even if it is not perfect in practice. However unmentioned by Hardin, the most pressing of possible symptoms of this methodology would indubitably include coercion of other types, for if one type of state coercion is permitted, what is to prevent other types of coercion? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? It seems the proper employ of this method, relying on state coercion to effect a positive social change, is exclusively dependent upon the disposition of the sovereignty. Abuses of power can most certainly be expected from the spirited tyrant. Thus, in order for this method to be truly feasible, only a sovereign exhibiting a fair and gentle temperament, with loving embrace of truth and justice, as Plato described the philosopher king, would suffice. Though such rulers as Akhenaten, Marcus Aurelius, Akbar, et al., have been an extreme rarity, as history has consistently shown. Considering Hardin’s opinion that a solution need not be perfect to be preferable, this imperfect resolution is nevertheless preferable to allowing the continuation of the status quo, further risking rapid resource exhaustion. However, there may yet exist a better solution in taking heed in Zeno’s words, “[…]self-preservation leads man to egotism, [but] nature has supplied a corrective to it by providing man with[…] sociability.”

V. Idealizing the Cooperative Society

It seems, in this discussion not enough attention had been paid to the significance of man’s state of nature. This idea has been outlined in numerous ways, first being described by Thomas Hobbes as “Nasty, brutish and short.” However Jean-Jacques Rousseau, idealized such a state as rendering man in want of nothing synthetic. He wrote of man in his natural state as, “an animal less strong than some, less agile than others, but all things considered, the most advantageously organized of all. I see him satisfying his hunger under an oak, quenching his thirst at the first stream, finding his bed at the foot of the same tree that furnished his meal: and therewith his needs are satisfied.” (Rousseau “Discourse on the Origins of Inequality.”) The assumption that natural man had at his disposal the tools for his own survival seems apparent. However, Rousseau seems to conclude incorrectly, the advent of cooperation was the ultimate detriment which set the initial course for social inequality. According to him, “[…]from the moment one man needed the help of another, as soon as they observed that it was useful for a single person to have the provisions for two, equality disappeared, property was introduced, and labor became necessary.” (Ibid.) This conclusion is contrary to the more common perspective that humans evolved as a social species rather than lone nomads.

With this historical consideration, the question social theorist should thus be asking is not what was man like in the state of nature but what was his society like. If we take for granted that various peoples living with what is commonly described as primitivistic styles of social organization, then is becomes clear that horizontal rather than hierarchical social organization is the original state of the human society.

Furthermore, one must contend with the consideration that many of these societies, when left to their devices, have been sustained for millennia. (Khoi-San societies most immediately come to mind.) The notion of original social organization typically entails cooperation for mutual benefit. The idea of voluntary communalism seems an inevitable extrapolation from the concept of a primitivistic society. And thus, social de-evolution presents itself as perhaps the single best solution to the tragedy of the commons.


Goodman, Paul. “Books.” New York Review 10, no. 8 (May 1968): 22.

Hardin, Garrett 1968. “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Science Magazine 162 (December 13, 1968): 1248.

Hunting Legends. “The Hunter’s Role in Conservation.” Accessed September 5, 2012. The hunter’s role in conservation.

Juvenal. “Satire VI.” Fordham University. Accessed September 2, 2012.

Kropotkin, Peter. “Anarchism – Encyclopaedia Britannica Article.” In Anarchism: A Collection of Revolutionary Writings, edited by Roger N. Baldwin, 283–300. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 2002.

Plato. “The Republic.” In Plato: Complete Works, edited by John M. Cooper, 1100–01. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. “Discourse on the Origins of Inequality.” In Against Civilization, edited by John Zerzan, 19–24. Port Townsend: Feral House n.d. 19 Khoi-San societies most immediately come to mind.

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