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Is More Coercion — in Principle — an “Extension” of Morality?

Activist Garrett Hardin popularized government coercion to “save the planet” in 1968

Recently, the Communist Party of China has announced permission for the three-child family, possibly because of the demographic ruin that the previous one-child family has occasioned in that country. But the basic idea that government should control everything is not new and it did not originate in China. Let’s go back to the 1960s in the United States.

In 1968, Garrett Hardin (1915–2003) made a famous appeal in the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s magazine, Science, for good old-fashioned coercion of human beings to stop having so many children: The abstract for his “Tragedy of the Commons” (Science, 1968), a Cool concept at the time, read simply “The population problem has no technical solution; it requires a fundamental extension in morality”:

It is a mistake to think that we can control the breeding of mankind in the long run by an appeal to conscience. Charles Galton Darwin made this point when he spoke on the centennial of the publication of his grandfather’s great book. The argument is straightforward and Darwinian.

People vary. Confronted with appeals to limit breeding, some people will undoubtedly respond to the plea more than others. Those who have more children will produce a larger fraction of the next generation than those with more susceptible consciences. The difference will be accentuated, generation by generation. [S. Tax, Evolution After Darwin (Univ. of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1960), vol. 2, 469.)] …

Coercion is a dirty word to most liberals now, but it need not forever be so. As with the four-letter words, its dirtiness can be cleansed away by exposure to the light, by saying it over and over without apology or embarrassment. To many, the word coercion implies arbitrary decisions of distant and irresponsible bureaucrats; but this is not a necessary part of its meaning. The only kind of coercion I recommend is mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon by the majority of the people affected.

Garrett Hardin, Science 13 Dec 1968: Vol. 162, Issue 3859, pp. 1243-1248 DOI: 10.1126/science.162.3859.1243

Of course, the basic problem with Hardin’s view is that “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon by the majority of the people affected” does nothing to protect endangered minorities — and it is disastrous in any situation where the very facts of the case are in dispute. In a matter of principle, majority opinion is not a good foundation for justice. Hence the Great Charter (Magna Carta) reads: “To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny, or delay right or justice.” The foundation of English Common Law is not a popularity contest.

Recently, Michelle Nijhuis the author of Beloved Beasts (2021), dusted off Hardin’s 1968 pronouncements, asking us to consider, as an alternative, the work of a largely neglected 2009 Nobel Laureate, Indiana University’s Elinor Ostrom (1933–2012), the first woman to be awarded the Prize in Economics. Her work mainly involved research into communities working together to achieve mutual goals:

While Hardin speculated that the tragedy of the commons could be avoided only through total privatisation or total government control, Ostrom had witnessed groundwater users near her native Los Angeles hammer out a system for sharing their coveted resource. Over the next several decades, as a professor at Indiana University Bloomington, she studied collaborative management systems developed by cattle herders in Switzerland, forest dwellers in Japan, and irrigators in the Philippines. These communities had found ways of both preserving a shared resource – pasture, trees, water – and providing their members with a living. Some had been deftly avoiding the tragedy of the commons for centuries; Ostrom was simply one of the first scientists to pay close attention to their traditions, and analyse how and why they worked.

The features of successful systems, Ostrom and her colleagues found, include clear boundaries (the ‘community’ doing the managing must be well-defined); reliable monitoring of the shared resource; a reasonable balance of costs and benefits for participants; a predictable process for the fast and fair resolution of conflicts; an escalating series of punishments for cheaters; and good relationships between the community and other layers of authority, from household heads to international institutions.

Michelle Nijhuis, “The miracle of the commons” at Aeon (May 4, 2021)

That certainly doesn’t sound like a recipe for totalitarianism. The real advantage is, it probably works.

Note: The photo of Elinor Ostrom is by Holger Motzkau 2010, Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons (cc-by-sa-3.0)

You may also wish to read: Why the Chinese Communist party feels it must destroy religion. Persecution of religious groups is not based on what they actually teach but on whether their separate existence could pose a threat to the Communist Party. Obsessed with the fall of the Soviet Union, Party leaders are determined to use new laws and technologies to render religious influence impossible.

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Is More Coercion — in Principle — an “Extension” of Morality?