Feature 09.27.2022 5 minutes

The Tragedy of Our Commons

Sheep skeleton decomposing on dirty ground.

Functional life in a normal society doesn’t just happen by accident.

Editors’ Note

The following is a transcript of remarks originally given in Miami at the National Conservatism Conference in September 2022.

As conservatives, one of the most important questions we face today is: what is there to conserve? A growing number of people are starting to realize that the answer is not, “the liberal victories of 10 years ago.”

Our framing of the problem has, up to this point, been almost exclusively focused on dimensions like the sovereign individual, freedom, and “don’t tread on me.” This is understandable if you are the underdog, but it is ultimately a strategy of pure defense. Asking to be left alone to practice blasphemy against a hegemonic moral order is to ask for something that will not ultimately be tolerated by the regime, of course.

We need to understand that the Left is the worship of pure autonomy. Every allegiance you have to kin and kind, every institution, every tradition, every category you use to make sense of the world is an insult to pure autonomy. Your pleas for freedom sound incoherent to the Left. What, you want the freedom to be unfree? Do you want the freedom to bind yourself to oppressive, archaic institutions? To chain yourself to limited concepts of gender and sexual expression?

The old framing that splits politics between 1. individualism concerned with freedom, and 2. collectivism concerned with equality, is a cloak disguising the fact that both Left and Right have been practicing the same worship of autonomy. One is just lagging a bit behind—but always, always catches up. The game is rigged. We lose.

The role of conservatism should be more than to play the heel to the Left’s permanent revolution, losing beautifully on every front, every time. There must be a clear picture of what improvement would look like outside the framing of the Left. So, I’d like to propose a new framing.

In economics, the tragedy of the commons refers to a situation in which individuals, who have open access to a common resource without shared rules about how to use it, act according to their own self-interest, which leads to the ultimate depletion of that resource. The usual example is public pastureland, also called a “commons” in Britain. If the pasture is grazed by everyone’s livestock, and maintained by no one, it will soon be overgrazed and destroyed.

There are other domains of human life that I believe are best viewed as commons—as emergent, critical societal assets prone to careless destruction by unsustainable use, less tangible than pastureland, but much more important in many ways to our daily lives.

Looking either at the individual or at specific collectives does not offer a complete picture of our current or potential dysfunction, or of the levers that we have at our disposal to improve it. I believe most decadence happens in the space in between, the mesh that ties us all together or fails to do so. The intangible commons can offer a new perspective on what we, as conservatives, should be stewarding, beyond the “individual v. collective” binary.

The easiest way to understand the intangible commons is that they create our societal default setting. This emerges from the relationships, technologies, and incentives present in that society. It always takes effort to move past the default, and whatever the default is will be “chosen” by most people.

I’ll give you a few examples:

Matt Crawford writes in his exceptional book, The World Beyond Your Head, about our attentional commons. About the effect of having every visible surface and screen around us beeping and flashing, seducing the primitive parts of our brains with ever more enticing and inescapable signals. The problem is that attention is deeply enmeshed with agency, with your capacity to be fully human. And it is being sold and consumed, chaotically, unchecked, on sparkling widgets and ever more elaborate slot machines.

This is just one example of a domain that has been left to the gods of autonomy by both the libertarian Right and the liberal Left. There are many more. Another is our food commons. I live in Eastern Europe, where the situation is tame compared to the U.S. But though still small, the percentage of the population that has to waddle as a means of propulsion has exploded. Every year, a larger and larger percentage of the grocery store is packed with new techno-culinary wonders that are just the right amount of sweet and savory, hitting just the right ratio of corn syrup to industrial seed oils. These engineered foods aren’t just fattening; they are barely food. Our relationship with them is as their prey.

The Great Swipe

But because my focus today is on the family, I want to highlight one of our most critical and most mismanaged commons of all: our relationships. Consider the act of finding a husband. He doesn’t drop out of the sky; he isn’t delivered by Amazon. Courtship is a hothouse flower: it needs very specific conditions. There need to be enough people for a selection pool, who can like each other enough to decide that spending a lifetime together would be acceptable. They have to speak at least one common language and share at least a core set of values. They need to believe in the institution of marriage. They maybe don’t buy that having children will cause polar bears to spontaneously combust, and they need to find each other easily enough. This environment, the ecosystem of marriage and children, and all the technology and incentives around it is a commons.

Picking spouses from an internet database according to specified parameters sounds like an increase in efficiency, like progress. But it has meant effectively wiping out a whole substructure of behaviors and equilibria that each had a purpose and were organically aligned with human nature. In the current system, a lucky few will be very lucky, and the great mass will get lost in commoditized heartbreak or the illusion that they are fundamentally ineligible. Using the same interface to find a spouse as you do to order a sandwich can affect how you feel about that relationship—who knew?

At the same time, under the rule of pure autonomy—again directly and indirectly, pushed by both Left and Right—the simple act of being together has been warped beyond recognition because every previously agreed upon norm is now optional. Your only mission, your only imperative, is to introspect, to investigate your desires in the moment, and from a place of deep authenticity to exercise consent.

The problem, and the secret here that would give away the game, is that our desires are not our own. They do not spring forth unassisted from a mysterious little homunculus piloting behind your eyes. They arise from our bonds to each other, our culture, our obligations, and our hierarchies. Once those bonds are severed, admittedly, some may be freed to reach for the stars. But most are more likely seduced by an ever-deepening gutter.

The current trajectory in our relationships and in our other intangible commons is technological Brazilification. The few winners in this game—the good-looking, the uber-conscientious, the already rich—happily cash in their gains, and below them open the sprawling favelas offering limbic tickles for the plebs. You yourself may be immune to their charms for now, but quantity is a quality all in itself. We have never seen such an onslaught of enslavement packaged as entertainment, or as identity.

Equating freedom to the ever-expanding autonomy to investigate and pursue our authentic desires means enslavement to those capable of manipulating and creating those desires. The end state of both Left- and Right-flavored autonomy worship is enslavement to the state. No man is an island, and the managerial superstructure knows this. If things continue down this path, the only thing we will soon have in common is our dependence on the state/corporate behemoth.

Now, the only thing still standing in the way of slow enslavement is the continued existence of functional intangible commons in dwindling pockets of society. This will not be the case for long. We cannot avoid taking stock of the conditions that keep the lights on forever. Sooner or later we need to examine what actually creates thriving societies, order, children, and generational prosperity.

This is our challenge. Yes, this way of looking at the world adds complexity. It lacks the simple charm and peaceful path to failure of “don’t tread on me.” It is values-driven; it is not neutral; it knows good things and shuns bad things; it brings with it new ways to fail. If it reeks of paternalism, good: your senses are working.

There is no neutral ground to be reconquered, because there never was. Every regime is, in its own way, a theocracy. To protect and revivify our intangible commons, we must first agree that they are worth saving.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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