Silverado Creek: A Tragedy of the Commons

Friday, July 30, 1999

George Orwell told us that the first duty of intelligent men is to restate the obvious. So, perhaps in my aspiration to be taken as intelligent, I wish to restate, by way of a homely example, that private property rights are good for the environment. (Of course, although it was Professor Garrett Hardin who wrote “The Tragedy of the Commons” for Science magazine back in 1963, he was restating a point made 2,500 years ago by Aristotle, thus assuring Hardin’s own qualifications as an intelligent person.)

The gist of the thesis is, well, obvious: Private property is taken better care of than public property, on average, that is. Public beaches, roadsides, parks, lakes, rivers, and oceans make this pretty evident to any observant person, as does “our” creek in Silverado Canyon in Orange County, California.

This is my neighborhood. Every day when I walk to the post office, I cross the bridge over Silverado Creek, a spot that should by all accounts be a wonderful feature of this generally funky community. The eclectic neighborhood is filled with a great variety of types and kinds of people.

I love living here except that right around the bridge the creek is a cesspool. Indeed, many of the roads, owned, effectively, communally, show similar treatment by their users. There is trash everywhere, at times just bits and pieces, at others big huge chunks. If, however, you take a peek into the front yards or back yards you will find cleanliness galore. The private portions of much of the neighborhood are beautiful indeed. But the public places, which are available for use by everyone, look just awful.

As I walk to the post office I think that perhaps I should buy myself some boots and get into the creek at night and clean it up. I do, after all, pick up the trash as I walk, dumping it into the trash cans sprinkled alongside the road. Maybe it wouldn’t be too much for me to embark on such a public-spirited deed.

But then I think that all my efforts will be for naught. In two days the creek will be as messy as it is now. The folks who discard stuff there will not stop doing so. Let’s face it, some folks don’t mind living like pigs. Now that is lamentable but not normally tragic; most often it does not have to affect the rest of us. The problem is that in public places one person’s litter becomes everyone’s litter. Everyone must endure the trash in public places since everyone makes use of what belongs to the public.

Moreover, such places are now increasing, what with environmentalists insisting that more and more private property be taken for public use. So you can be sure that littering, too, will increase.

Indeed, all the oil spills and other defilements of the environment would be significantly restrained if those who pollute faced private legal action. But because public policy determines what happens to those who damage public property, there is always the chance that little will happen—if, for example, a community has a great many citizens who like the culprit (or are its employees).

Politics changes with the shift of voter sentiment. One year environmentalism is all the rage, the next, it isn’t. But the principle of private property can be left pretty much intact, provided it amounts to a fundamental constitutional tenet of a community, which is where it was headed in the United States of America.

The backyards in my neighborhood are spotless. But the creek—which is public—is a cesspool.

In the U.S. Constitution, the Fifth Amendment treats private property rights as fundamental, to be sacrificed only for a public purpose and even then to be justly compensated. And a public purpose wasn’t supposed to be just anything that a bunch of folks screamed about, it was to do with the pursuit of justice—as when a courthouse had to be built.

Today, however, small minorities that get out the vote, as well as majorities, can undermine the legal protection of property rights. When that happens, the environment gets messier and messier. Oh, here and there a sufficient constituency might exist to keep public realms clean—for a while. (Switzerland is a pretty good case in point—cleanliness there is literally next to godliness.) But in the long run, unless there is a firmly established system of private property rights, the tragedy of the commons will become widespread, just as in the little community of Silverado, where the creek gets a little messier each day.