The Cowboy Commons



June 4, 2007

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Almost forty years ago, Garrett Hardin, a biologist, bid us to “picture a pasture that is open to all.”  This pasture was everywhere and nowhere, and inhabited by dimwits enlisted from the economics texts. They had no history or social affinities,  no context of custom or law, just an internal calculator of their own immediate financial gain.  From that hypothetical Hardin spun out the “tragedy of the commons,” which has been a staple of the economics texts ever since.  It was theology rather than economics, which made for a congenial match.

Many commentators have pointed out that if Hardin had bothered to observe the world, he would have found that commons often have worked wonderfully – and continue to do so to this day.  He didn’t have to go far.  The evidence was practically right outside his window, historically speaking, in the open pastures of the old American West.

The West was, in those days, a sprawling commons.  Most of the land belonged to the federal government, or to railroads.  Homesteaders had not yet arrived.  There were no legal allotments, no fences.  Cattlemen just started grazing their stock, much like the herdsmen in Hardin’s drama. It was his recipe for tragedy, but that didn’t happen.  The reason was that somehow, the cattle owners figured out that a little cooperation would bring the best result for all.

First, they adopted the practice of branding from the Spanish. This enabled each owner to distinguish his own herd. Then they established registries for these brands, and enlisted the state legislatures to prohibit the sale of cattle that lacked one.  (Like corporations today, these cattlemen were not opposed to government and regulation when it served their own needs.)

That left the problem of sorting out the respective herds when it was time to take the fattened steers to market (and also for branding calves.)  For each owner to do this separately, at different times, would be a thankless task. The answer was cooperative round-ups.  Owners who didn’t participate were ostracized from the group, and this was sanction enough

What about overgrazing?  That was the serpent in Hardin’s imaginary pasture, the problem too difficult for the herdsmen to solve.  The cattlemen, who I guess lacked the benefit of an economics text, simply created associations to police overgrazing and keep newcomers out.  (They also made sure each owner had enough bulls to ensure the continuation of the herd.  These people needed one another, and knew it.)

One such association published a notice in the Helena (Montana) Daily Herald that said: “We, the undersigned, stock growers of the above described range, hereby give notice that we consider said range already overstocked; therefore we positively decline allowing any outside parties or any parties locating herds upon this range the use of our corrals, nor will they be permitted to join us in any roundup on said range from and after this date.”

You can question the way the range was allotted – ie first come, first serve. You can point out that these cattlemen were hardly saints. Some tried to fence the range they didn’t own; and some were big outside businesses to begin with. Environmental problems would arise over time that government had to address.  But it is hard to contend, as Garrett Hardin did, that they were too dumb to figure out how to use a commons, at least in regards to co-existing with one another.

I gleaned much of this information from an article in the Freeman, which is a libertarian, free market magazine. (Ronald Reagan was a fan.)  The article is called “How the Western Cattlemen Created Property Rights;” and the author, one Robert Higgs, seems not to realize that he’s talking about common property rights as well as private ones. That is, the cattle were private, yes. But those private cattle were grazing on a commons, and so the commons was as important to their business as the private was. (Shops on Main Street and broadcasters in the public airwaves are in somewhat the same situation today.)

The market fundamentalist mind tends not to notice this.  Higgs also seems unaware that his use of the word “created” has a double edge. Whatever private rights the cattlemen acquired, they did so by taking from the public domain. (He doesn’t mention that some of these property creators actually started as cattle thieves, and gained respectability as their herds increased.)  That taking started with the ethnic cleansing of the original occupants of the land, who had depended upon the bison from time immemorial for food and hides.

Those natives had a fatal flaw, in Higgs’ telling.  They never created property rights in the beasts. Thus the bison were ripe for slaughter when the Caucasian hide-hunters came.

“Because bison proved unsuitable for domestication and no one possessed effective private property rights in the peripatetic creatures, they became a classic case of the ‘tragedy of the commons’ – a common-property resource on the hoof that hunters had an incentive to kill so long as an animal had enough value to justify the marginal cost of killing it.  In two decades, the bison were nearly annihilated.”

So the natives had it coming, Higgs suggests. You can’t blame the hunters – they simply were responding to a market “incentive.” But let’s put the shoe on the other foot for a moment.  Picture a pasture in which the original occupants – the native Americans – behave the way the cattlemen did who replaced them. Imagine that they dispense frontier justice on those who would threaten their herds.  What would happen then?  Oh dear.

There was no tragedy of the commons when the natives were living off the herd.  The tragedy came in the person of hunters who had no ties to society or place, and no need to live together with the land for the long haul.  It came with the abstracted “market” of which these hunters were the agents. This is not romanticizing, but merely stating an historical fact. There are lessons for a long haul economics here, but not the ones the Freeman thought it was making.

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