What is of course never debated openly is the travesty of the anti-commons: if a meadow is put in the hands of some profit-motivated private entity, this entity is motivated to extract as much wealth from the meadow as possible to then invest the proceeds in some other, more profitable venture. Unless the meadow happens to be the highest-yielding property in the world (which is unlikely) the motivation is to make intensive use of the meadow, extract the value out of it and invest that capital elsewhere, where the yield is better. And even if the meadow were the highest-yielding piece of property in the world, the motivation would still be to maximize the short-term profitability of the meadow. If overgrazing it slightly could produce more profits over the short term, and if these profits could be invested elsewhere to more than make up for the gradual production losses from the meadow, then this too would produce the same result: the meadow would be overgrazed.
Unsurprisingly, these are the two scenarios that we can actually witness playing out. In the first, private land-holders practice the equivalent of slash-and-burn agriculture, with massive overgrazing and over-farming, topsoil destruction and erosion, and then use the profits to acquire more land and repeat. In the second scenario, private land-holders have a longer term profit-generating plan for the land, but nevertheless always try to graze that extra sheep to provide that extra bit of margin to invest elsewhere.
Especially in places where land is expensive but chemical fertilizer is relatively cheap, letting the land degrade but propping up vegetation with artificial nutrients provides a clear path to profitability, especially when using mechanized agriculture. And indeed, letting the land erode and degrade is what we see nearly all profit-motivated agricultural land-holders doing, and what neoliberal bureaucrats view as sound business and land management practices. In this they are bolstered by the idea that non-private ownership would lead to erosion and degradation of the land in a sad, sad tragedy of the commons which they, of course, work hard to avoid.
Are these sound practices? In propaganda, it is a generally recognized principle that the simpler the lie, the better it works, because then believing that lie requires no complicated thought process, and there is far less risk of critical thinking slipping in somewhere. Now, it turns out that the lie behind the tragedy of the commons is so simple that just a bit of critical thought is sufficient to make it disappear in a puff of logic. To be thorough, we will do this in two ways. First, we will try to apply the principle of the tragedy of the commons to non-renewable resources. Second, we will attempt to to define private property without recourse to the concept of a commons (tragic or non).
As an example of non-renewable resources, let's take a mine, although an oil and gas field would work just as well. The tragedy of the commons doctrine would lead us to believe that a mine is better stewarded over the long term by a private holding than when it is held in common, public ownership. In the case of a renewable resource such as a meadow, there was at least a proposed mechanism that might motivate a profit-seeking private holding not to let overgrazing occur, if doing so hurt its profits… although overgrazing may just as well raise its profits in the short-term, allowing it to reinvest them elsewhere and get better overall yield. But, for the sake of the argument, let's pretend this proposed mechanism does operate sometimes, turning private land-owners into conservationists even in an unregulated environment. (Yes, this is a bit of a stretch.)
In the case of a mine, however, the resource in question isn't renewable, so this mechanism to avoid depletion can't possibly apply: no amount of stewardship will make a mine produce forever, and any exploitation of a mine by anyone will eventually deplete it. So what justifies private ownership of non-renewable resources? Why wouldn't we want to treat non-renewable resources as a commons, since either way the result is the tragedy of permanent depletion? Answer: Precisely because there is a short-term motivation for profits to invest elsewhere, we can trust a private holding to produce the mine as quickly as possible. That is, a private holding will strive to achieve the maximum possible extraction rate from the mine, which will provide more of the resource to society, in the short term, keeping prices low and stimulating economic growth. Everybody wins! But won't this accomplish exactly the same thing as overgrazing a meadow? Last we heard, that's what happened to it when it was allowed to languish in public hands, and this was considered to be a tragedy... Except here we have short-term resource extraction by a host of mechanized shepherds, along with an entire industrial infrastructure conditioned to operate on cheap resources, soon to end in tragedy when the nonrenewable resources first become expensive, then run out entirely. One can pick one type of tragedy over the other, but what makes one better than the other?
When they find themselves in this particular corner, neoliberal economists start spouting replacement theory, which goes roughly like this: “You fool! Resources are infinite! If one runs short, people switch to another, which they value just as much, so it's the same thing! Extracting maximum short-term profit from one mine will just allow the holders to invest in new mines, and even if one element did become rare innovation would easily provide a substitute. When we run out of grain, we will switch to eating excrement, and when we run out of excrement, we will switch to eating dirt. And since dirt will cost just as much as grain used to, economically speaking it's all the same.
Simple enough to believe... but wait… If resources are infinite, then why is destruction of the commons a tragedy? If nonrenewable resources are infinite (thanks to replacement theory), then why wouldn't the commons be infinite as well, and therefore impossible to destroy? Why should we worry about land degradation in the first place if there is always more land? And if there isn't always more land, won't we just find substitutes for land, or at least for its functionality, through technical innovation? That, after all, is largely what is being done already, using chemical fertilizers. Why couldn't the overgrzazing shepherds do the same thing, and import nutrients when the pastures become degraded?
The basic assumption behind the tragedy of the commons is that resources must be stewarded over the long term for the benefit of society, and that this is best done by placing them in private hands. But now it turns out that what matters is letting private entities extract all wealth from a given resource as quickly and profitably as possible, whereas society might do a slower job at it and even get in the way. Indeed—horror of horrors!—a mine that is in public hands might be purposefully exploited slower and more efficiently, precisely because the society that controls it as a commons is aware if its dependence on it. (Unlike private capital, it's difficult to move whole societies elsewhere once all value is extracted from their resource base.)
There is no reason to believe that privatizing the commons will save it from destruction; just the opposite, it is a good way to ensure that it will be destroyed.