The Garrett Hardin Society

Updated 9 June, 2003

Rewards of Pejoristic Thinking

by Garrett Hardin, 1977

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The geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky [1] tells a charming story of a Victorian lady's reaction to Darwin's evolution theory. Informed that the theory implied the descent of man from apelike creatures, the wife of the Canon of Worcester Cathedral cried out, "Descended from the apes! My dear, we hope it is not true. But if it is, let us pray that it may not become generally known!"

The reactions of many people at the present time to the tragedy of the commons is similar to this. There are a number of plausible explanations. For one thing, the legacy of Rousseau is not yet lost: there are still many people who think that man is essentially good and that we should be able to build the Good Society on this assumption. Their utopias avoid coercion. Then, too, there is the pessimism-optimism disjunction. In the popular mind pessimism is seen as an evil, optimism as a good. The tragedy of the commons is regarded as pessimistic and hence unacceptable.

There is certainly much to be said for optimism. Optimists are often pleasanter to be with than pessimists. Pessimism saps the vitality of a man of action. Optimism creates a climate of opinion favorable to finding venture capital and embarking on grand commercial projects. Optimism justifies individual liberty and the idea of laissez faire -- letting each person "do his own thing," confident that all will turn out for the best in the end, both for the individual and for society as a whole. The most famous justification of laissez faire is that which Adam Smith gave in 1776:

Every individual ... indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.[2]

This was said at the very peak of the Age of Reason. Intoxicated with rationality, the intellectual leaders of the day had pretty well thrown Overboard all belief in a providential God, one who provides for and takes care of mankind. Many no longer used the word God in serious discourse. But it is easier to jettison the label of a belief than the belief itself. Under the guidance of Adam Smith, providential God was replaced by providential laissez faire, and mankind continued in much the same way as before, bumbling along without policy, each man doing his own thing, trusting in the providence of the "invisible hand" to convert private gain into public benefit.

The historical importance of Smith's invisible hand in delaying the development of public policy in the commercial realm is well known. It is astonishing how powerful an effective metaphor can be in suppressing recognition of contradictory facts. [3] We were well into the 20th century before there was significant legal recognition of the fact that unrestrained laissez faire did not always lead to social good. Anti-trust laws and the Pure Food and Drug Act were among the first such recognitions to be embodied in the law. An even more far-reaching limitation of laissez fairewas the National Environmental Protection Act of 1970, which in effect said that all future interventions in the environment would be evaluated by the principle of "Guilty until proven innocent," a reversal of the assumption of English law. [4]

Belief in the efficacy of the invisible hand has persisted longer in the area of philanthropy. As explained in Chapter 9, philanthropy (no matter how meritorious) is in its essence irresponsible and not subject to "the discipline of the market place." There are more than a few philanthropists who act as if all that is necessary to help the poor is to anoint them with money and then leave them alone to work out their own salvation (guided, presumably, by some sort of invisible intelligence that seems not to have supervised their affairs hitherto). That such a belief is in fact held is shown by a statement made to the Democratic Party Platform Committee by Dr. George A. Wiley [5] in 1968: "The basic cure for poverty is money. We believe that the way to do something about poverty is to give people the money they need . . . without degrading investigations and harassments." There is no perception here of poverty as a process, only of poverty as a state. States are easily altered; processes are not. People in the grip of processes, as Kenneth Boulding has pointed out, all too often act as if they were propelled by an "invisible foot."

Our trust in the providence of laissez faire is greatest in the area of international philanthropy (where we are farthest from the objects of our attentions). Political intervention in the affairs of foreign nations is no longer fashionable; on the whole this is a good thing. In addition, anthropologists have convinced us of the complexity of all cultures, even the poorest, and the difficulty of bringing about cultural change that will produce the beneficent results desired. So we take the easy way out. Trusting in the invisible hand of philanthropy, we now shower billions of dollars onto poor nations, enabling them to build dams, sink wells, plant crops, generate electricity, build factories, spray with DDT, staff hospitals, inject penicillin, and install IUDs in the uteruses of women firmly entrapped in the mystique of pronatalism. Beyond the initial gift, laissez faire prevails. That is to say, we still believe in providence.

For a quarter of a century international philanthropy has been largely guided by optimistic laissez faire doctrines, and now there are a billion more poor people than there were when we started trying to save the world. Belief in providence dies hard. One is reminded of Bertrand Russell's cynical aphorism: "Men would rather die than think. Some do."

But it is not necessary to fail from inadvertence. The laissez faire of Adam Smith is not the only philosophy available as a guide. There is at hand another philosophy -- using the word "philosophy" in an imprecise but popular sense -- that is even older, though less often mentioned. I refer to the guiding spirit of Gresham's Law, enunciated in 1558 by Sir Thomas Gresham, but commonly stated in words used by H. D. Macleod in 1857: "Bad money drives out good." It will be worth our while to look deeply at the implications of this "law," to see how it differs in spirit from laissez faire.

The practical situation that leads to Gresham's Law is quite simple. Imagine a country in which two sorts of coins are circulating: real coins and counterfeit ones. In the course of time, what will happen? Whenever a person with two coins in his pocket, one genuine and one counterfeit, decides to use one to buy something from a vending machine, which one will he use? Most probably the counterfeit one, saving the genuine coin for some occasion when it is more difficult to pass a counterfeit. Not everyone need behave this way to produce the effect Gresham postulated; but many will. As a result, with the passage of time, bad money drives good out of circulation (as people store the good coins under the mattress). The process is devastating to commerce, of course, and the state intervenes. Invoking the naked power of coercive laws, rulers make it a criminal offense to manufacture or circulate counterfeit coins. States behaved in this way long before the explicit statement of Gresham's Law.

Let us imagine someone who was absolutely convinced that laissez faire is the only right approach to all problems. Were we to follow such advice in monetary matters, we would allow genuine and counterfeit coins to compete freely in the market place; confident that an invisible hand would protect us. Needless to say, disillusionment would soon follow.

Enthusiasts of individual freedom often acknowledge the existence of evil in the world, but they believe that the majority of mankind is basically good and that the majority is decisive in determining what happens. Sometimes this may be true; but there are many social processes that work in such a way that even the smallest minority spoils the results.

Suppose the great majority of men and women are paragons of virtue and refuse to pass on counterfeit coins: will their behavior negate Gresham's Law? Not at all; the process by which the law prevails takes place in two steps. First of all, a call for voluntary compliance would be counterproductive: it would reward noncooperators, who would prosper. Secondly, when the hypothesized majority who had complied observed the increasing prosperity of the minority who had not, the majority would be overcome by envy. Some would defect, and the ranks of the noncooperators would swell. A vicious circle would thus be established and soon all but an unimportant residue of true believers in Rousseauan goodness would be living out Gresham's Law.

We often use the cliche, "overwhelming majority"; the process we have just described is obviously driven by an overwhelming minority. If humanity were not infected with the poison of envy, social processes might not work in this way and we could rely on individualistic voluntarism instead of laws. But we are descended from an unbroken line of envious ancestors, and it would be unwise to assume that we are any different. Those few of us who are are less likely to be the ancestors of posterity. As Leo Durocher said: "Nice guys finish last." Our ancestors did not finish last.

Note that when we are dealing with a monetary system a policy of voluntary compliance fails no matter how small the initial minority of noncooperators. Only a minority of zero would permit a voluntary system to work. Obviously we would be fools to adopt any political or economic system that functions successfully only if literally everyone is virtuous.

The problem of dealing with "error" (noncompliance, in the example given) is millennia old. The mathematician John von Neumann has called for a new attitude toward variation and error. [6] In working out the logic of computer construction, von Neumann saw that it was nonproductive to complain of the unreliability of the elements used in making them. Error, said he, is customarily viewed "as an extraneous and misdirected or misdirecting accident" to which we react by devising nongeneral, ad hoc solutions. It is far more fruitful, he said, to accept error and unreliability as essential characteristics of the components, and then devise systems that are reliable in spite of the unreliability of their parts. Paradoxical though it may sound, it is, said von Neumann, possible to synthesize reliable organisms from unreliable components. To do this one must accept component unreliability in much the same sense that a psychoanalyst accepts the vagaries of his patients. A political or economic system that works must similarly accept humanity as it is, "warts and all."

Once we adopt a systematic rather than an ad hoc view of error, the pessimism-optimism disjunction is less attractive. Is it pessimistic to hold that "Bad money drives out good"? Is it pessimistic to believe in the law of gravity which (in a simple form) says that "All that goes up must come down"? Calling either law pessimistic seems rather silly, and is certainly nonproductive. The law of gravity is not an ad hoc thing, but "of the essence" of the world. By accepting it we are enabled to devise flying machines that do what we want in spite of the apparent prohibition of the simple statement of the law. So also, by accepting Gresham's Law are we enabled to devise stable monetary systems. It is usually when we forget the inescapability of this law that we permit unwise tinkering with the monetary system that brings the economic system down in ruins. If it is pessimistic to believe in Gresham's Law, then we must admit that the survival of civilization is dependent on pessimists being in control.

Obviously we need a better disjunction than that based on optimism and pessimism. One is at hand, and this is the meliorism-pejorism disjunction. [7] The Latin root meliorare means to become or to make better; pejorare means to become or to make worse. Both refer to processes. Optimist and pessimist, by contrast, are derived from optimum and pessimum, which refer to states. Maintaining this distinction between process and state permits us to create two useful new words, meliorist and pejorist (which are not, therefore, synonyms of optimist and pessimist). In the light of what we know of the power of Freudian denial it is perhaps significant that meliorist is to be found in English dictionaries, but pejorist is not.

A melioristic process is one that continually tends to improve -- something. In spite of the popularity of meliorism as an attitude, it is not easy to think of purely melioristic processes. One that comes to mind is the process of domestication of grains with respect to the property of "shattering." The heads of wild grasses naturally shatter early, scattering the seeds on the ground. It is in the interest of the propagation and dispersal of the species that shattering should occur. But when "man" (probably really women) began gathering seeds it was to his interest that shattering be delayed, preferably indefinitely. By planting only the seeds he gathered -- he could hardly do otherwise! -- man selected for nonshattering genes. Without any conscious program at all the beginning of plant domestication started a melioristic process.

Pejoristic processes are easier to descry. Every pesticide, for example, selects for its own failure. (DDT, for instance, selects for DDT-resistant flies.) The rhythm method of birth control selects for arhythmic women. [8]Voluntary population control selects for philoprogenitive instincts that mock at the system. [9] Free competition among currencies selects for bad money.

The distinction between pessimist and pejorist can be seen as rooted in motivation. A pessimist settles for describing the evil of the world without being motivated to do anything about it. It is no wonder that the generality of mankind represses the pessimist's descriptions. A pejorist, by contrast, looking for the providential workings of things, is likely to look also for ways of improving the system. In the realm of money, a pessimist may be satisfied to observe that everybody is so damned selfish, and to settle for the minimum policy of "Let every man look out for himself, and the devil take the hindmost."

A good pejorist would refuse to regard this as acceptable policy; he would look for some way whereby men might collectively band together to create a more acceptable system. Laws that specify penalties for counterfeiting are the pejorist's response to the wishful thinking of the optimists and the cynicism of the pessimists. The pessimist is unhappy because he is cynical, the optimist because he is soon disillusioned; only a pejorist can be truly happy. He is busy trying to remake the world nearer to the heart's desire--and with occasional success.

Perhaps this all seems terribly obvious, but I think it needs to be said. Though men have long assumed the general applicability of laissez faire, they have not hitherto generalized from Gresham's Law to policy. In effect, they have treated this law as a special case. Had its generality been recognized earlier, we might sooner have recognized that in an unmanaged commons, greedy herdsmen drive out considerate ones, grasping hunters drive out moderate ones, polluting industries drive out clean, and rapidly reproducing parents displace those who accept the limits to growth.

That such statements have not been encouraged is understandable. They sound like the sort of thing pessimists say, and the common man distrusts pessimists because they all too often prefer to nourish insoluble problems rather than to look honestly for solutions. The pejorist differs from the pessimist in taking the negative statement as the beginning of action, not the end of it. As Francis Bacon said, "Nature to be commanded must be obeyed." Both pejorists and pessimists begin by obeying; the pejorist then takes the next step and seeks a way to command nature (at least in part).

A serious charge to be laid against the optimist is that he is unwilling to obey nature even at the outset. Let me illustrate this point with some examples taken from the theory of population control.

Kingsley Davis [10] has identified as the "Population Establishment" a group of men and women who are united in believing that population control can be achieved under the guidance of laissez faire. Society need supply only the means of birth control and population control will follow automatically, without pain, without policy, without coercion. Being composed of kindly people, the Population Establishment wants to give poor people both contraceptives and food, under laissez faire conditions. On a priori grounds this is a risky course to follow. In all other species of animals, better nutrition produces higher fertility. Why should man be an exception? The Establishment hopes, and apparently believes, that man is an exception, but the best that can be mustered in the way of evidence is always ambiguous and often contradictory. The burden of proof surely lies on anyone who asserts that better nutrition will cause a lowering of fertility. Feeling the weight of this burden the proponents of that view should present their evidence in the clearest and most rigorous terms. Alas! they do not. Language is tailored to fit a belief in providence. Two examples from Establishment publications will serve:

Alleviation of childhood and maternal malnutrition could encourage smaller families.

Possibilities for successful contraceptive programs may be enhanced if women's nutrition improves.

The key words in these sentences are could and may. Where the pessimist avoids acting by clinging to presumed in olubilities, the optimist avoids decision by saying nothing definite.... Almost anything could be true; almost anything may happen.

The grand tradition of all serious investigation is to risk saying something, to risk one's reputation in order that the work of understanding the world may go forward. For an example, consider the following passage from Chapter VI of Darwin's Origin of Species:

Natural selection cannot possibly produce any modification in a species exclusively for the good of another species, though throughout nature one species incessantly takes advantage of and profits by the structures of others. But natural selection can and does often produce structures for the direct injury of other animals, as we see in the fang of the adder, and in the ovipositor of the ichneumon, by which its eggs are deposited in the living bodies of other insects. If it could be proved that any part of the structure of any species had been formed for the exclusive good of another species, it would annihilate my theory, for such could not have been produced through natural selection.

"Natural selection cannot possibly ..." -- What a contrast with the mushy could and may of the optimists! With this unqualified, unambiguous statement of the implications of his theory, Darwin cuts himself off from all possibility of a strategic retreat. Even a single instance of exclusive "do.-goodism" on the part of a single species serving the needs of another would (Darwin acknowledges) annihilate his theory. No finer example of intellectual courage is imaginable; nothing less will do for the gaining of secure knowledge.

Bad money drives out good. Perpetual motion machines are impossible. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Pure altruism has no survival value. The end result of an unmanaged commons in a crowded world is tragedy.... It is with blunt statements like these that we uncover the mystery of the world -- and learn to cope with it.

To those who have research ambitions in the social and political field, one bit of advice can be given with confidence: the payoff is in pejorisms. For two related reasons.

First, there is the concentrating effect resulting from previous investigations that had a melioristic bias. In the beginning, all the unknown principles of the world constituted a certain mixture of melioristic and pejoristic principles. Since people prefer to think pleasant thoughts, thoughts that do not imperil the status quo, they discover the melioristic ones first. Adam Smith's "invisible hand" is a good example. Selective blindness also leads observers to overlook the limitations of meliorism, as they stretch the evidence. They search avidly for more melioristic applications, with some success. The result of all this selection is to leave the collection of principles-yet-to-be-discovered relatively richer in pejorisms. Consequently the pejoristically-minded investigator finds the research mine increasingly rich in his kind of ore.

The second reason focuses on the minds instead of the mine. Since Freudian denial is a normal resting point of human minds the minority who are fortunate enough to escape the clutches of denial have few to compete with. Fewer competitors and richer pay-dirt -- what more could one ask? We should not complain too bitterly if most people, by one rhetorical device or another, justify their avoidance of pejoristic thinking.


1. Theodosius Dobzhansky, 1956. The Biological Basis of Human Freedom. New York: Columbia University Press. (p. 3)
2. Adam Smith, 1776. The Wealth of Nations. (Book IV, Chap. II)
3. For a pejoristic discussion of the limits of laissez faire see Chap. 21, "The cybernetics of competition: a biologist's view of society," in Garrett Hardin, 1973. Stalking the Wild Taboo. Los Altos, Calif.: Kaufmann.
4. See Chap. 7, "Guilty until proven innocent," in Garrett Hardin, 1972. Exploring New Ethics for Survival: The Voyage of the Spaceship Beagle. New York: Viking.
5. Quoted in I. F. Stone's Weekly, 16 (18):2, 9 September 1968.
6. John von Neumann, 1956. "Probabilistic logics and the synthesis of reliable organisms from unreliable components." In Collected Works, 5:329-78. New York: Macmillan. (p. 329)
7. First proposed in 1974 by Garrett Hardin in an essay reprinted as Chapter 25 in this volume. There are some differences between the use of the word pejorism in that chapter and the present one. Describing the differences is "an exercise left to the reader."
8. Garrett Hardin, 1963. "A second sermon on the mount." Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 6:266-71. (Reprinted in the book cited in note 3 above.)
9. Charles Galton Darwin, 1960. "Can man control his numbers?" In Evolution After Darwin, Sol Tax, ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
10. Kingsley Davis, 1973. "Zero population growth: the goal and the means." In The No-Growth Society, Mancur Olson and Hans H. Landsberg, eds. New York: Norton.