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Freedom, authoritarianism, and the tragedy of the commons

In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful

The balance between freedom and authoritarianism is one of the great issues affecting not only the Muslim world but every human society. We can gain a better understanding of this struggle by viewing it through the modern theory of the tragedy of the commons in synthesis with the normative teachings of Islam.

Tragedy of the commons is an economic theory by Garrett Hardin which is based on the assertion that individuals acting rationally, and in their self-interest, will act against the best interests of the group. The theory is called “tragedy of the commons” as this behavior depletes common resources, or “commons,” which are critical for the group as a whole.

This theory has far reaching applications in economics, politics, ecology, agriculture, and sociology. It was thought that protecting society against the tragedy of the commons can be done either through privatization of the commons, in which individuals own and operate their shares, or through intrusive regulations which ensures individuals are punished for behavior that negatively affect the commons.

However, those two approaches have drastic consequences. Predatory free market practices emerge along with privatization, whereas authoritarian rule is encouraged by intrusive regulations. It was not until political economist Elinor Ostrom began exploring more effective solutions to the problem that a new direction was charted.

In 2009, Elinor was granted the Nobel Prize in Economic Science for her analysis of economic governance related to the commons. Her study found that societies exist all over the world which have managed to avoid the tragedy of the commons without privatization or intrusive government regulations. She found that those societies shared common themes in their approach which include defining boundaries, implementing collective choice, effective monitoring (measuring success), graduate sanctions for violators, conflict resolution, and self-determination. In other words, this approach can be summarized as defining the commons and how they could be violated, objectively measuring such violations, and including everyone in the process of implementing sanctions on violators.

The concept of the commons can also be extended to societies and how they balance preservation of their values against the eroding of individual liberties. History tells us that humanity has struggled with problems in ethics which parallel the problems of the commons in ecology and economics. Preservation of values often results in authoritarian establishments who draw a red line protecting their values and they punish those who cross it.

This authoritarian model provides certain entities, who are charged with preserving society’s values, enormous powers that are eventually redirected to squelch opposition and reinforce the rule of the elite class, leading to severe injustice. On the other hand, a society with largely unregulated freedom is a typical case of the tragedy of the commons in which individuals acting rationally and freely will diminish common resources and values. Exploring a line between individual freedoms and preserving common values is certainly a topic of hot political debate. However, the issue is better served if we attempt to find a comprehensive solution to the tragedy of the commons.

Recently, voices have been raised claiming Islamic values and Western freedoms are fundamentally incompatible. Those voices can be heard in both the east and the west, from both Muslims and non-Muslims. Islamic civilization is perceived to be based upon unchanging civil laws which require an authoritarian entity to enforce and Western civilization by contrast is based upon individual freedom and civil liberties. Thus, the clash of civilization is inevitable, or so it seems.

We disagree with this simplified view, as we believe the conflict at the core of this presumed clash is simply a case of managing the commons. Although both approaches are put forward as solutions to the tragedy of the commons, yet both of them are incomplete. An entirely authoritarian approach is by no means Islamic, but neither is unregulated freedom an appropriate solution.

The truly Islamic solution follows the method of Ibrahim based upon observation, use of reason, and faith in the consistency and compatibility of the creation. The proper question for us to ask in this case is what solutions are consistent with the method of Ibrahim?

Tragedy of the commons in the Quran

The balance between civil liberties and preservation of common values is well addressed in the Quran in two successive verses. The first emphasizes civil liberties and individual freedoms by rebuking any attempt to prohibit what Allah has made available for people to enjoy:

قُلْ مَنْ حَرَّمَ زِينَةَ اللَّهِ الَّتِي أَخْرَجَ لِعِبَادِهِ وَالطَّيِّبَاتِ مِنَ الرِّزْقِ ۚ قُلْ هِيَ لِلَّذِينَ آمَنُوا فِي الْحَيَاةِ الدُّنْيَا خَالِصَةً يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ ۗ كَذَٰلِكَ نُفَصِّلُ الْآيَاتِ لِقَوْمٍ يَعْلَمُونَ

Say: Who has forbidden the beautiful things of Allah which He has produced for His servants and the good things of provision? Say: They are for those who believe during the worldly life and exclusively for them on the Day of Resurrection. Thus, We detail the verses for people with knowledge.

Surat Al-A’raf 7:32

Based upon this verse and others, Islamic law developed the principle that all social customs are lawful by default and they only become unlawful by an explicit declaration of scripture or a compelling interest. Therefore, people are at liberty to live how they please unless there is a good reason to restrict certain specific freedoms.

The next verse clarifies that the preservation of civil liberties shall not be at the expense of the values which Allah wants us to adhere to:

قُلْ إِنَّمَا حَرَّمَ رَبِّيَ الْفَوَاحِشَ مَا ظَهَرَ مِنْهَا وَمَا بَطَنَ وَالْإِثْمَ وَالْبَغْيَ بِغَيْرِ الْحَقِّ وَأَن تُشْرِكُوا بِاللَّهِ مَا لَمْ يُنَزِّلْ بِهِ سُلْطَانًا وَأَن تَقُولُوا عَلَى اللَّهِ مَا لَا تَعْلَمُونَ

Say: My Lord has only forbidden obscenities, whatever is public of them and whatever is concealed, and He has forbidden sin and transgression without right and that you associate with Allah that for which He has not revealed any authority and that you claim about Allah that which you do not know.

Surat Al-A’raf 7:33

Balancing the preservation of values with civil liberties is the right way to find solutions for the problems of the commons. It is important to understand that Islam mandates sanctions on violators of the common values only if those violations become public. Individuals are required to keep their violations private as long as they do not involve the rights of others.  In other words, the commons and their values are harmed only when an individual’s violations are publicized. Private violations remain between each individual and his Lord and are thus beyond the realm of legal punishment. One can deduce from this that only when a violation of values has a clear impact upon the commons is such punishment warranted.

This view is contrary to the misconception in the minds of many Muslims in which a violation of values always demands sanction and punishment. Emphasizing civil liberties excessively has its own negative ramifications, but focusing exclusively on punishment implemented by a centralized entity is a recipe for corrupt authoritarian rule, as the saying goes, “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Freedom in the West evolved in response to a poorly executed solution to the tragedy of the commons through authoritarian figures, both religious entities and political dictatorships. Those authoritarian figures ended up damaging the very values they claimed to protect and the clergy consequently realized the tragedy of the commons by their self-serving behavior. As a result, the West overcorrected the historical excesses of theocracy by placing too much importance on unrestricted civil liberties, leading to the proliferation of harmful social vices such as alcoholism, drugs, pornography, adultery, and gun violence. We would do well to observe the lessons of this history so as not to repeat the same mistaken imbalance.

No doubt, the values of Islam are fixed and not subject to change, but practices in terms of practical legislation are changeable and must always intend to preserve our timeless values. The monotheistic approach to any problem is based on observation, reason, and belief in consistency of the creation and natural laws. In order to solve the tragedy of the commons, we ought to clearly understand the nature of the problem and observe the experience of nations who have failed to adequately solve it.

Whenever a new problems arises which requires legislative action, we should first identify which values are being served by any proposition and its impact on other values. For example, if we propose a new law in the name of justice, will it be so harsh as to violate the value of mercy? And if we propose a new law in the name of mercy, will it be so lenient as to violate the value of justice? Striking the balance between all values ought to be the starting point of our debates in our parliaments and law-making councils.

Moreover, we need to develop a way of objectively measuring the success or failure of such propositions. It is not enough to merely say such an idea is Halal or Haram, allowed or forbidden. Our core values, the welfare of people, need to be identified and the efficacy of legislation should be supported by data. For example, if a new law is enacted to protect drivers on the road, then its success or failure could be measured over time by the increase or decrease of traffic-related injuries. If the new policy fails, we can repeat the process of discussion and measurement until we find one that works.

Essentially, we must strike a balance between freedom and authority in pursuit of the welfare of all people. Exalting one over the other not only conflicts with the proven method of Ibrahim, it leads to the tragedy of the commons.

Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.