by Rabbi Natan Levy

As far back as 1968 Garret Hardin, in a seminal article written for Science magazine, caught the essence of the problem of capitalism on a small planet. He called it the tragedy of the commons, and it went something like this. Cow herders grazing a common pasture land were faced with a choice whether to add more cows to their own flock. If they added another cow, they and their family alone would reap the profits of increased meat and milk supply. Yet, every new cow is an additional strain on the communal pasture land. The grass is devoured quicker, the faeces pollute the streams earlier in the season, the road becomes rutted with over-use. Yet, while the individual herder alone garners the total reward of adding another cow to his burgeoning flock, the ecological cost to the commons is shared by all. And therein lies the tragedy, for the incent"ive of increasing personal wealth will always takes precedence over the negative consequences shared equally by the community at large.

Though it is difficult to name just one culprit in the complex web of human induced ecological decline that stains our age, more often than not, you can bet that the tragedy of the commons is amongst the prime candidates. From over-fishing in the Atlantic, to slash and burn farming in the Amazon, to strip-mining on the muddy banks of the Niger, it is simple economics which undermines public property at the expense of private wealth. From its earliest encounter with land ownership over 2,500 years ago, the Children of Israel attempted to avoid the tragedy of the commons. When Joshua granted land rights to the tribes of Israel, he immediately blurred the line between public and private ownership, granting communal rights that superseded privacy claims.i "The land is mine,"ii God reminds Israel. Every seven years during the shmittah (sabbatical year), the Jewish people reaffirmed this radical claim when all private agrarian land become available for public use. In Torah law the rights of the individual must always be subordinated to the good of the community. Therefore the Rabbinical Court (Beth Din) of the town had a fundamental juridical principle of hefker bet din hefkeriii which implied that all property was held subject to the will of the Court, which effectively meant sustainable use under Torah guidelines.iv A further means of reversing the tragedy of the commons was the Biblical emphasis on personal responsibility in contradistinction to personal rights. Whereas the founding texts of modern democracy are concerned mainly with the rights of the individual, the Torah lacks even the word or phraseology of unalienable rights. What it mentions in abundance is a system of obligations. This leads to some interesting outcomes in Jewish law where one can act entirely within their rights, yet still be held responsible for the unintended consequences of those actions. For example, in the ancient world one had the common right to dump refuse into the public thoroughfare, as rubbish bins where in short supply.

However, according to the Rabbinical code, if a pedestrian slipped on this garbage, the one who dumped remains liable for damages.v This is a radical departure from modern sentiment. If enforced today, Jewish law might well obligate me to the pay the damages if my recycled glass cut the hand of a sorter in China. The tragedy of the commons ceases to become tragic, when the herdsman remains perpetual responsible for his cow. If the cow rutted up the road, or damaged the pasture with overgrazing, the Rabbinal courts would hold that herdsmans alone responsible, regardless of the fact that the road and the field were part of the public domain. In Talmudic jurisprudence, the private profit of one cow is exactly equal to that cows public malifience. As long as Jewish law refused to allow the cow's destructive outcomes in the commons to be anything less than the full responsibility of the cow's owner, than effectively there is no more tragedy in the common space. A rabbinical aggadah (homily), crystallized this re-thinking of private vs. public nearly 2,000 years ago. A farmer was once clearing his field of boulders by dumping them into the public road. A sage come up to the farmer and asked: "Why are you throwing stones from land that is not yours into land that is yours?" "Old fool," replied the farmer, "I own the field, not the road." The years passed, the farmer fell on hard times and sold his field. One day, he happened to be walking on that very same road, when he tripped over the stones that he had cast there many years before. As he lay on the ground, he recalled the words of the sage. "That old man was correct!" he exclaimed. "I threw those stones into the very place that is mine."vi The Jewish answer to the tragedy of the commons, is to consider the entire world as our own backyard.


Crime Reduction

While a crime-free society is a utopian ideal that will only be fully achieved in a messianic world, making our own effort to reduce crime to a minimum is essential. Crime blights the lives of individuals, communities and society as a whole. The earth, the Bible (Gen. 4) relates, came close to destruction because of the moral turpitude and violent acts of its human inhabitants. A society that cannot control crime is a society that has no future, no hope.

Threat of punishment is part of a package of measures. Sanctions, fines and other penalties act both as a disincentive to criminals and as a clear message to society that selfish misdeeds and criminal acts will not be tolerated. Forms of redress serve both to restore to the victim some of the damage inflicted upon him or her, whilst warning the would-be-criminal that grievous actions are not without consequence.

However, the Bible notes on several occasions (e.g. Duet. 17:13; 21:21) that it regards punishment as providing a moral-educational purpose, "So that that people shall listen and learn". Punishing the Egyptians for their persecution of the Israelites, the Bible (Ex. 10:2) declares, was to send out a message for generations that evildoers will not go unpunished and that justice will prevail.

In truth the main and most effective means of reducing crime are education and moral development. Whilst the phenomenon of crime might be encouraged by pervasive poverty -and it is not particularly helped by providing criminals with lots of easy opportunities - fundamentally, crime is the product of a criminal attitude.

However, blaming criminals alone is not the answer. As a society, we create the moral mood music. When only several hundred people committed the Sin of the Golden Calf, the whole nation was held to blame (Ex. 32). When just a single individual stole from the spoils of Jericho, the entire population were considered guilty (Joshua 7). Why? In the eyes of Judaic teaching, criminality is often merely the sharp end of a society's moral failings; the extreme manifestation of social decline (R. Eliyahu Dessler). The moral questions are, What do we value as a society: world possessions or spiritual treasure? Do we place monetary success above all else and instant gratification as a natural right?

People within stronger community units have greater incentive to desist from crime. Individuals who are encased within closer family bonds will be less inclined to live outside the law. We must look at how these valuable structures can be reinforced and replenished. Education is not purely about technical knowledge, but involves the imparting of ethics and values. An education system that finds itself unable to talk about right and wrongloses its ability to convey morals.

To be sure, there are many causes of crime, but the most basic cause is the criminal's decision to step outside the confines of lawful behaviour. This is fundamentally about poor judgement. Sin, the Talmud (Sotah 3a) states, is the product of momentary stupidity. It is true that we need to address the 'causes' of crime, but these cannot be located purely where poverty and marginalisation offer crime's opportunity. Rather, crime prevention will be achieved through education and sound societal structures that foster morally effective decisions and discourage morally faulty ones.

An approach to crime reduction that focuses solely on punishment is akin to locking the stable door once the horse has bolted.