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William Paley on the tragedy of the commons (1785)

The English moral philosopher William Paley (1743-1805) discussed the problems created by the communal ownership of property. He was aware of the incentive problem as well as this early formulation of the “tragedy of the commons”:

We may judge what would be the effects of a community of right to the productions of the earth, from the trifling specimens which we see of it at present. A cherry-tree in a hedge-row, nuts in a wood, the grass of an unstinted pasture, are seldom of much advantage to any body, because people do not wait for the proper season of reaping them. Corn, if any were sown, would never ripen; lambs and calves would never grow up to sheep and cows, because the first person that met them would reflect, that he had better take them as they are, than leave them for another.

II. It preserves the produce of the earth to maturity.

We may judge what would be the effects of a community of right to the productions of the earth, from the trifling specimens which we see of it at present. A cherry-tree in a hedge-row, nuts in a wood, the grass of an unstinted pasture, are seldom of much advantage to any body, because people do not wait for the proper season of reaping them. Corn, if any were sown, would never ripen; lambs and calves would never grow up to sheep and cows, because the first person that met them would reflect, that he had better take them as they are, than leave them for another.

III. It prevents contests.

War and waste, tumult and confusion, must be unavoidable and eternal, where there is not enough for all, and where there are no rules to adjust the division.

IV. It improves the conveniency of living.

This it does two ways. It enables mankind to divide themselves into distinct professions; which is impossible, unless a man can exchange the productions of his own art for what he wants from others; and exchange implies property. Much of the advantage of civilised over savage life, depends upon this. When a man is from necessity his own tailor, tent-maker, carpenter, cook, huntsman, and fisherman, it is not probable that he will be expert at any of his callings. Hence the rude habitations, furniture, clothing, and implements, of savages; and the tedious length of time which all their operations require.

About this Quotation:

Paley’s Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (1785) was an influential work which helped lay the foundations for the philosophy of utilitarianism in England in the late 18th century. In two short chapters on property he discusses a number of key issues. He the first he has an amusing story about a flock of pigeons which, without property rights, has no way of rationally allocating property to different members of the flock. In the second he lists four main reasons why property is useful: it increases the productivity of the land, it encourages rational land use by enabling owners to keep the product of what they sow, the enforcement of property rights reduces conflict between owners, and it makes the division of labor possible. The second reason is especially interesting as it is an early formulation of what is now caused “the tragedy of the commons.” Without property rights, he states, “the first person that met them (unripened corn, lambs, and calves) would reflect, that he had better take them as they are, than leave them for another.”

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