The Logic of Disarmament and the Tragedy of the Commons
(For meetings of the World Intellectual Forum, Hyderabad, India, June 2019)
There are times which are not ordinary, and in such times it is not enough to follow the road. It is necessary to know where it leads, and, if it leads nowhere, to follow another…. But the practical thing for a traveler who is uncertain of his path is not to proceed with the utmost rapidity in the wrong direction: it is to consider how to find the right one. R.H. Tawney
Abstract. This article reviews the economic principle called the “Tragedy of the Commons” that is commonly applied to environmental analyses and planetary population issues. It then shows how the principle applies to our global political commons, and how it bears on the problems of peace and disarmament. It reviews the concept of national sovereignty, which, like the capitalist concept of self-interest, predicates an atomistic self-interest that is at the root of the tragedy of the commons. Finally, the article shows how the Constitution for the Federation of Earth overcomes this dilemma through embodying the new scientific paradigm of holism. It then reviews the work of the Provisional World Parliament as a functional developmental praxis directed toward overcoming the tragedy of the commons as this applies to peace and disarmament.
The idea of the tragedy of the commons has become fundamental to the contemporary conceptual repertoire of those concerned with global issues. The idea was first formulated by economist William Forster Lloyd in 1833 and became a well-known hypothesis after the publication of Garrett Hardin’s famous article by that name in 1968 (see Hardin 1980). Most fundamentally to date, the idea has been used with respect to economics, ecology, population issues, and environmental science.
A tragedy of the commons, in its standard version, happens when a common resource is freely open to users operating out of “rational self-interest.” The value of using the commons (for example, grazing cattle on public lands or fishing in international waters) is direct to the individual users, but the depletion or degradation of the commons (diminishing of the grazing lands through over-grazing or depletion of fish stocks through over-fishing) is born somewhat equally by all the users. Hence, the negative value of the degradation process to individual users is considerably less than the immediate positive value of unlimited usage. Until, of course, the grazing land becomes so degraded as to be useless or the fishery collapses because overfishing has destroyed the regenerative capacity of the fish in the ocean. An unrestricted, freely used commons invites tragedy.
Garrett Hardin applies this principle to the population of the Earth. He decries the UN’s 1967 affirmation that the decision regarding the number of children to have is the right of each family. Hardin argues that overpopulation of the Earth is rapidly leading to a planetary tragedy of the global commons. Since this concept entered the common consciousness, there have been a host of studies showing ways that this general thesis needs modification. For example, some cooperative communities, including indigenous cultures, actually do operate successfully with regard to a commons based on principles of the common good and sharing rather than exclusive “rational self-interest.” The idea that people act out of rational self-interest, is of course, a dogma of capitalism and fundamental to the so-called “economic rationality” of free markets.
Garrett Hardin argues that we cannot effectively appeal to conscience (and hence voluntary restraint in the use of a commons), but rather need to legally regulate the uses of commons according to some standard of justice that governs who uses and the behavior of those who use. This principle has become very important in contemporary debates concerning the need for sustainability in all its dimensions, from overuse of land, to extraction of resources, to pollution of air, soil, and water. However, few have drawn out implications of this principle regarding the system of sovereign nation-states and the corresponding global problems of war, peace, and disarmament.
Both the capitalist system and the system of sovereign nation-states developed out of the early-modern paradigm that began to be solidified by the 17th century. During this century the works of Francis Bacon argued that science and its stepchild technology placed human beings in the position of being able to conquer nature on behalf of their own self-interest. Similarly, in 1648, the ruling powers of Europe came together after the Thirty Years War to formulate the foundations of today’s world political system. Every nation was to have absolute territorial boundaries within which its governmental authorities would be supreme. These same authorities would be independent in their relation to other governments, that is, autonomous in their foreign policies. The traditional concept of “sovereignty” was redefined to fit this new, atomistic model (see Harris 2008, Chap. 1).
The consequence, as many thinkers from the 17th century to the present have noted, was that a “war-system” had been created in which self-interested national fragments would complete with one another economically, politically, and culturally in a system that today encompasses the entire planet. Beyond the borders of these territorial islands of legally enforced peace, Thomas Hobbes declared in the 17th century, the nation-states confront one another as “gladiators.” The system imperative is war and armaments, and not peace or disarmament. It militates against any notion of a planetary common good.
In his 1795 essay on “Perpetual Peace,” Immanuel Kant called this system of militarized sovereign nation-states “savage and barbaric” for the same reason: the system created by these islands of law placed their respective governments into a global fragmentation in which there was no effective law or government over these autonomous nation-state islands. Kant declared that only world federation could establish peace in the world. Nation-states must give up their “lawless” freedom (the so-called ‘right’ to make war) and find peace under the lawful constraints of enforceable world law (Kant 1957). In the 19th century, Hegel observed this same phenomenon—that when there is a clash of “wills” represented by the heads of states, the ultimate resolution could only be settled by war (1991, pars. 331, 333-334).
In his 2008 book, Twenty-first Century Democratic Renaissance, philosopher Errol E. Harris agrees with this traditional assessment:
That enmity and war between sovereign states is inevitable has been recognized by political theorists from Hobbes to Hegel and, as we have seen, several more contemporary writers…. This parlous situation is the direct consequence of the claim to sovereignty of the nations of the world, a claim that admits no law superior to its own, and which gives unquestioning priority to national interests, especially those regarded as “vital,” namely, first and foremost, security from foreign aggression, and secondly economic prosperity…. Neither International Law nor the United Nations can ameliorate this state of affairs. International law lays down as its first principle that its sole subjects are sovereign states, and then defines sovereign states as those which acknowledge no legislation superior to their own, thus annulling its own authority. (2008, 122-23)
In the 20th century we entered into what German thinker Jürgen Moltmann called “the end-time” (2012, 46). After two world wars of horrifying destruction of life and property around the globe, the world entered into the era of nuclear weapons, placing the fate of humanity into tremendous danger that continues through today. Just as nations can enter in, or withdraw from, climate treaties according to their arbitrary will, so they can enter into, or withdraw from, disarmament treaties according to their will. In 2018, for example, the United States withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty signed with Russia in 1987.
Under the present world system, the United States had the legal right to withdraw from the Disarmament Treaty, just as it had the legal right to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord of 2015. The U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, passed by the General Assembly in 2015, are predicated on this fragmented paradigm of sovereign states that is at the heart of our tragedy. Item 18 states that, “We reaffirm that every State has, and shall freely exercise, full permanent sovereignty over all its wealth, natural resources and economic activity.” This means that Brazil, for example, acting as all nations do out of economic self-interest, has the legal right to cut down and destroy “the lungs of the Earth,” even though the Amazon basin is an integral component of our planetary climate system. The system legalizing the self-interest of each nation inevitably functions to destroy the common good of all humanity.
Nations operate according to perceived self-interest and recognize no binding laws above themselves. The United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs, established in 1998, has only the authority to “promote” disarmament through persuasion directed to the relevant sovereign-state powers. Sovereign nations will never recognize any UN agency as having binding authority, since the UN itself is merely a treaty of sovereign nations and not a government. So-called “international laws” are themselves merely treaties signed by sovereign states who can ignore the treaty, withdraw from it, or interpret it in their own prejudicial favor, at any time.
Just as our global commons is experiencing the tragedy of the commons through climate collapse, so the world is threatened continually with global wars or nuclear holocaust. Another tragedy of the commons perpetually happening and threatening the existence of us all. Our planetary commons constitutes our global political space, populated by human civilization everywhere on the planet, and (as Kant again put it) the fact that the planet is a sphere and equally the common home for everyone. The common good of the planet requires the ending of war and disarmament, yet the political structure of the planet inevitably destroys that common good through the threat of total war, and the waste of trillions of dollars in resources that need to be used to address the climate crisis and other global problems. The institutionalized imperative of the system is war and armaments, and disarmament is impossible without changing the system.
As Garrett Hardin points out, neither morality nor education can be seriously effective in preventing the tragedy of the commons. Only enforceable legislation that protects the commons and the common good can prevent this tragedy. Human beings have known that we live on a common, planetary home at least since the 17th century, the same century that produced the false early-modern paradigm. This paradigm was based on atomism, mechanism, and determinism as well as an ideology positing a human and social atomism in which operating out of “self-interest” was considered the essence of rationality.
The paradigm developed by the 20th century has been holism, a holism in which atomism and fragmentation are understood to be false conceptions. This holism is the key to both sustainability and peace. Yet neither our economics nor our politics of sovereign nations have converted to this new paradigm. The new paradigm demands a World Parliament and enforceable democratic world law. The actualization of a global community that, as philosopher of law John Finnis shows, necessarily requires planetary government (1980, 129-30).
The Constitution for the Federation of Earth establishes an Earth Federation for our planet with binding legal authority over every person, corporation, and nation. If we want to establish peace and disarm the nations, ratification of this Constitution must be our first priority. The Earth Federation established by the Constitution is itself non-military. It ultimately requires the nations joining the federation to (1) immediately abandon any weapons of mass destruction and (2) by the second level of formation of the Earth Federation (under Article 17), begin the process of disarmament.
However, even during the first stage of Federation (prior to mandatory disarmament), the nations joining will have given up the irrational claim to absolute sovereignty. They will have recognized the people of Earth as sovereign (now represented by the World Parliament in which they participate). Their retention of military organization, therefore, will be strongly tempered by the fact that they no longer have the legal rightto use their military forces indiscriminately, as they see fit. They are now legally bound within a whole that supersedes the perceived self-interest of the parts.
Even before ratification is completed under Article 17, Article 19 of the Constitution provides for a process of conversion of the early-modern planetary paradigm toward one of life under a democratic world system that can legally enforce proper uses of the commons and prevent the tragedy that is inevitable under the outdated paradigm. Under Article 19, the people of Earth are empowered to begin the Earth Federation now as provisional world government. The central way this has been done to date has been through holding sessions of the Provisional World Parliament that legislate World Legislative Acts (WLAs) under the authority of the Earth Constitution. 14 sessions of the Parliament have been held between 1982 and 2015.
Article 19 may be considered a “functionalist” approach to the problem of disarmament. In his 1994 book, Confronting War: An Examination of Humanities Most Pressing Problem, Professor Ronald J. Glossop describes the functionalist approach as follows:
Functionalists believe that the best way to change the international system is to continue to create more and more such agencies to work on the various problems facing humanity. In the long run, they claim, this approach is more and more likely to lead to a gradual limiting of national sovereignty than is an effort to try to get the various national governments to agree explicitly to limit their sovereignty. If functional agencies are created, this approach is much more likely to lead to a gradual limiting of national sovereignty than is an effort to try to get the various national governments to agree explicitly to limit their sovereignty. (1994, 355)
This conclusion by Professor Glossop is both relevant and not relevant to our effort to ratify the Earth Constitution. It is not relevant because, like the UN, it appears based on the assumption that nation-states are the primary agents whose consent is necessary to end war and create an Earth Federation. However, the Earth Constitution correctly recognizes the people of Earth as sovereign and provides an option for direct ratification of the Constitution by the people. The option for nation-states becoming signatory to the Constitution exists, and would be simpler in practice, but, as Glossop points out, sovereign nations are loath to do anything for humanity (as a whole) rather than their own perceived self-interest.
This is precisely why the nations are not a necessary requirement to ratify the Earth Constitution, because they are all, politically speaking, illegitimate (as Errol E. Harris also points out). They are illegitimate because no sovereign government can serve the common good of its population, which clearly includes preservation of the planetary environment, universal disarmament, and the institutionalizing of world peace (2008, 132). As in the present essay, Harris also links our planetary tragedy with the sovereignty of nations: “Hence the problems of maintaining world peace and of conserving the global ecological system are interlinked and are both rendered insoluble as long as the nations remain and claim to be sovereign and independent” (ibid. 130).
The above statement by Ronald J. Glossop is relevant, however, to the work ofProvisional World Government that is currently in the business of establishing the key institutions of government, developing within the framework of the old world order to be sure, but without requiring the consent of the lawless nation-states. Many of the 67 World Legislative Acts (WLAs) passed by the Provisional World Parliament to date bear on the development of world peace (see works cited below). Here I will point to four of these that bear perhaps most directly on the process of disarmament. These include World Legislative Acts numbers 1, 13, 33, and 34. WLA 1 prohibits weapons of mass destruction for all nations and establishes the World Disarmament Agency (WDA). It links the emerging Board of Trustees of the WDA to the ratification process for the Earth Constitution, so that nations ratifying the Constitution may each name a member to the Board.
WLA 13, called the World Peace Act, reaffirms the prohibition of WMDs but extends the prohibition to include any form of financing, managing, or transporting these weapons. It links the violation of these prohibitions to various degrees of felony culpability and specifies punishments upon conviction. It lists a progressively implemented system of culpability, illustrating a functional principle as suggested by Professor Glossop. As the agencies and laws developed under the Provisional World Government become more elaborated, more well-known, and respected, they will carry more functional weight. In this way, the beginnings of true enforceability can be initiated.
The Provisional World Parliament, under Article 19, has already passed enabling legislation for the Collegium of World Judges and the World Court System. It has also appointed officers to the Executive Branch of the Provisional World Government. In doing so, the infrastructure for enforceability is functionally developing without requiring the consent of the sovereign fragments who, by refusing to give up the illegitimate aspect of sovereignty, tacitly give their consent to the system endangering the future of humanity. Article 33 bans the production of all fissile materials that could be used in the manufacture of bombs or other nuclear explosive devices. It gives detailed specifications as to what constitutes these materials, who is responsible for obeying the law, punishments that correlate with violation, agencies responsible for inspection, enforcement, etc.
WLA 33 is complemented by WLA 34 that legislates a “nuclear weapons dismantling procedure.” The procedures required by law for revealing nuclear weapons, conforming to the prohibitions on financing or transporting them, are here also extended to the processes and methods for dismantling them. This nexus of legal factors in these four World Legislative Acts invites and encourages the development of the agencies directed to enforcement. To the extent that the Provisional World Parliament continues to grow and develop the resources and reach of its agencies, the process of disarmament is also extended and solidified.
This functionalist approach in turn reinforces both the process and the need to ratify the Constitution for the Federation of Earth that will ultimately be the only practically effective instrument for disarming the nations and preventing the tragedy of our planetary commons now represented by the lawless system of militarized sovereign states. This functionalist approach will have more authority than any comparable UN disarmament project, for the UN is based on the sovereign nation-state paradigm and hence undercuts its own authority. The Provisional World Parliament system is based on the new holistic paradigm carrying binding authority under the Earth Constitution.
Beginning with the second stage of ratification (commencing when 50% of the world’s nations, that include at least 50% of the world’s population have ratified), the nations will have long since abandoned the false, illegitimate aspect of sovereignty that supposedly gives them the “right” to do what they please regardless of the common good of the people of Earth. The nations will then have legitimate sovereignty over their internal affairs, but the Earth Federation government will have enforceable authority to disarm the nations and institute the rule of enforceable law over all peoples and nations. By this point (stage two), the rest of the world’s population will surely be clambering to join the Earth Federation—for all will by then be fully aware of the need for holism, the benefits of the rule of law, and the tremendous significance of a global public authority directed to the common good and eliminating the threat of planetary tragedy.
These benefits are outlined in Article 1 of the Constitution. They include ending war and disarming the nations, protecting universal human rights, eliminating extreme poverty from the Earth, and protecting the planetary environment. The planetary tragedy of the commons, today horrific and staring us directly in the face, will finally be averted for good through the only truly rational option available to humanity—ratification and implementation of the Constitution for the Federation of Earth.
Glossop, Ronald J. (1994). Confronting War: An Examination of Humanity’s Most Pressing Problem. Third Edition. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company.
Finnis, John. 1980. Natural Law and Natural Rights. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Harris, Errol E. (2008). Twenty-first Century Democratic Renaissance: From Plato to Neoliberalism to Planetary Democracy. Appomattox, VA: Institute for Economic Democracy Press.
Hegel, G. W. F. (1991). Elements of the Philosophy of Right. Alan Wood, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Garrett Hardin (1980). “Tragedy of the Commons,” in Economics, Ecology, Ethics: Essays Toward a Steady-State Economy. Ed. Herman E. Daly. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman and Company, pp. 100-114.
Kant, Immanuel (1957). Perpetual Peace. Ed. Lewis White Beck. New York: Macmillan.
Martin, Glen T., ed. (2016). Constitution for the Federation of Earth. The Constitutionis also on-line at www.earth-constitution.org. It is available there and elsewhere in many languages.
Moltmann, Jürgen (2012). Ethics of Hope. Trans. Margaret Kohl. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
Tawney, R.H. (2017). The Acquisitive Society. A Public Domain Book. ISBN 9781544682877, pp. 1-2.
UN Sustainable Development Goals at: https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals/
World Legislative Acts of the Provisional World Parliament at: