“Tragedy of the Commons” is a myth: community management of commons reliably protects land and natural resources, better than privatization

Nobel Prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom proved that people can—and do—work together to manage commonly-held resources without degrading them.  See a series of related short overviews below.  

By Ian Angus

Since its publication in Science in December 1968, “The Tragedy of the Commons” has been anthologized in at least 111 books, making it one of the most-reprinted articles ever to appear in any scientific journal. It is also one of the most-quoted: a recent Google search found “about 302,000” results for the phrase “tragedy of the commons.”

For 40 years it has been, in the words of a World Bank Discussion Paper, “the dominant paradigm within which social scientists assess natural resource issues.” (Bromley and Cernea 1989: 6) It has been used time and again to justify stealing indigenous peoples’ lands, privatizing health care and other social services, giving corporations ‘tradable permits’ to pollute the air and water, and much more.

Noted anthropologist Dr. G.N. Appell (1995) writes that the article “has been embraced as a sacred text by scholars and professionals in the practice of designing futures for others and imposing their own economic and environmental rationality on other social systems of which they have incomplete understanding and knowledge.”  Like most sacred texts, “The Tragedy of the Commons” is more often cited than read. As we will see, although its title sounds authoritative and scientific, it fell far short of science.

Garrett Hardin hatches a myth

The author of “The Tragedy of the Commons” was Garrett Hardin, a University of California professor who until then was best-known as the author of a biology textbook that argued for “control of breeding” of “genetically defective” people. (Hardin 1966: 707) In his 1968 essay he argued that communities that share resources inevitably pave the way for their own destruction; instead of wealth for all, there is wealth for none.

He based his argument on a story about the commons in rural England.  (The term “commons” was used in England to refer to the shared pastures, fields, forests, irrigation systems and other resources that were found in many rural areas until well into the 1800s. Similar communal farming arrangements existed in most of Europe, and they still exist today in various forms around the world, particularly in indigenous communities.)  “Picture a pasture open to all,” Hardin wrote. (Note this is not how resources shared or managed in common by different groups operate.)  A herdsmen who wants to expand his personal herd will calculate that the cost of additional grazing such as reduced food for all animals and soil depletion will be divided among all, but he alone will get the benefit of having more cattle to sell.  Inevitably, “the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd.” But every “rational herdsman” will do the same thing, so the commons is soon overstocked and overgrazed to the point where it supports no animals at all.

Hardin used the word “tragedy” as Aristotle did, to refer to a dramatic outcome that is the inevitable but unplanned result of a character’s actions. He called the destruction of the commons through overuse a tragedy not because it is sad, but because it is the inevitable result of shared use of the pasture. “Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.” 

Where’s the evidence?

Given the subsequent influence of Hardin’s essay, it’s shocking to realize that he provided no evidence at all to support his sweeping conclusions. He claimed that the “tragedy” was inevitable — but he didn’t show that it had happened even once.

Hardin simply ignored what actually happens in a real commons: self-regulation by the communities involved. One such process was described years earlier in Friedrich Engels’ account of the “mark,” the form taken by commons-based communities in parts of pre-capitalist Germany:

“[T]he use of arable and meadowlands was under the supervision and direction of the community …

“Just as the share of each member in so much of the mark as was distributed was of equal size, so was his share also in the use of the ‘common mark.’ The nature of this use was determined by the members of the community as a whole. …

“At fixed times and, if necessary, more frequently, they met in the open air to discuss the affairs of the mark and to sit in judgment upon breaches of regulations and disputes concerning the mark.” (Engels 1892)

Historians and other scholars have broadly confirmed Engels’ description of communal management of shared resources. A summary of recent research concludes:

“[W]hat existed in fact was not a ‘tragedy of the commons’ but rather a triumph: that for hundreds of years — and perhaps thousands, although written records do not exist to prove the longer era — land was managed successfully by communities.” (Cox 1985: 60)

Part of that self-regulation process was known in England as “stinting” — establishing limits for the number of cows, pigs, sheep and other livestock that each commoner could graze on the common pasture. Such “stints” protected the land from overuse (a concept that experienced farmers understood long before Hardin arrived) and allowed the community to allocate resources according to its own concepts of fairness.

The only significant cases of overstocking found by the leading modern expert on the English commons involved wealthy landowners who deliberately put too many animals onto the pasture in order to weaken their much poorer neighbours’ position in disputes over the enclosure (privatization) of common lands. (Neeson 1993: 156)

Hardin assumed that peasant farmers are unable to change their behaviour in the face of certain disaster. But in the real world, small farmers, fishers and others have created their own institutions and rules for preserving resources and ensuring that the commons community survived through good years and bad.

Why does the herder want more?

Hardin’s argument started with the unproven assertion that herdsmen always want to expand their herds: “It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. … As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain.”  In short, Hardin’s conclusion was predetermined by his assumptions. “It is to be expected” that each herdsman will try to maximize the size of his herd — and each one does exactly that. It’s a circular argument that proves nothing.

Hardin assumed that human nature is selfish and unchanging, and that society is just an assemblage of self-interested individuals who don’t care about the impact of their actions on the community. The same idea, explicitly or implicitly, is a fundamental component of mainstream (i.e., pro-capitalist) economic theory.

All the evidence (not to mention common sense) shows that this is absurd: people are social beings, and society is much more than the arithmetic sum of its members. Even capitalist society, which rewards the most anti-social behaviour, has not crushed human cooperation and solidarity. The very fact that for centuries “rational herdsmen” did not overgraze the commons disproves Hardin’s most fundamental assumptions — but that hasn’t stopped him or his disciples from erecting policy castles on foundations of sand.

Even if the herdsman wanted to behave as Hardin described, he couldn’t do so unless certain conditions existed.  There would have to be a market for the cattle, and he would have to be focused on producing for that market, not for local consumption. He would have to have enough capital to buy the additional cattle and the fodder they would need in winter. He would have to be able to hire workers to care for the larger herd, build bigger barns, etc. And his desire for profit would have to outweigh his interest in the long-term survival of his community.

In short, Hardin didn’t describe the behaviour of herdsmen in pre-capitalist farming communities — he described the behaviour of capitalists operating in a capitalist economy. The universal human nature that he claimed would always destroy common resources is actually the profit-driven “grow or die” behaviour of corporations.

Will private ownership do better?

That leads us to another fatal flaw in Hardin’s argument: in addition to providing no evidence that maintaining the commons will inevitably destroy the environment, he offered no justification for his opinion that privatization would save it. Once again he simply presented his own prejudices as fact:

We must admit that our legal system of private property plus inheritance is unjust — but we put up with it because we are not convinced, at the moment, that anyone has invented a better system. The alternative of the commons is too horrifying to contemplate. Injustice is preferable to total ruin.”

The implication is that private owners will do a better job of caring for the environment because they want to preserve the value of their assets. In reality, scholars and activists have documented scores of cases in which the division and privatization of communally managed lands had disastrous results. Privatizing the commons has repeatedly led to deforestation, soil erosion and depletion, overuse of fertilizers and pesticides, and the ruin of ecosystems.

As Karl Marx wrote, nature requires long cycles of birth, development and regeneration, but capitalism requires short-term returns.

[T]he entire spirit of capitalist production, which is oriented towards the most immediate monetary profits, stands in contradiction to agriculture, which has to concern itself with the whole gamut of permanent conditions of life required by the chain of human generations. A striking illustration of this is furnished by the forests, which are only rarely managed in a way more or less corresponding to the interests of society as a whole…” (Marx 1998: 611n)

Contrary to Hardin’s claims, a community that shares fields and forests has a strong incentive to protect them to the best of its ability, even if that means not maximizing current production, because those resources will be essential to the community’s survival for centuries to come. Capitalist owners have the opposite incentive, because they will not survive in business if they don’t maximize short-term profit. If ethanol promises bigger and faster profits than centuries-old rain forests, the trees will fall.

This focus on short-term gain has reached a point of appalling absurdity in recent best-selling books by Bjorn Lomborg, William Nordhaus and others, who argue that it is irrational to spend money to stop greenhouse gas emissions today, because the payoff is too far in the future. Other investments, they say, will produce much better returns, more quickly.

Community management isn’t an infallible way of protecting shared resources: some communities have mismanaged common resources, and some commons may have been overused to extinction. But no commons-based community has capitalism’s built-in drive to put current profits ahead of the well-being of future generations.

A politically useful myth

The truly appalling thing about “The Tragedy of the Commons” is not its lack of evidence or logic — badly researched and argued articles are not unknown in academic journals. What’s shocking is the fact that this piece of reactionary nonsense has been hailed as a brilliant analysis of the causes of human suffering and environmental destruction, and adopted as a basis for social policy by supposed experts ranging from economists and environmentalists to governments and United Nations agencies (for decades, and still holds sway in many quarters).

Despite being refuted again and again, it is still used today to support private ownership and uncontrolled markets as sure-fire roads to economic growth.

The success of Hardin’s argument reflects its usefulness as a pseudo-scientific explanation of global poverty and inequality, an explanation that doesn’t question the dominant social and political order. It confirms the prejudices of those in power: logical and factual errors are nothing compared to the very attractive (to the rich) claim that the poor are responsible for their own poverty. The fact that Hardin’s argument also blames the poor for ecological destruction is a bonus.

Hardin’s essay has been widely used as an ideological response to anti-imperialist movements in the Third World and discontent among indigenous and other oppressed peoples everywhere in the world.

“Hardin’s fable was taken up by the gathering forces of neo-liberal reaction in the 1970s, and his essay became the ‘scientific’ foundation of World Bank and IMF policies, viz. enclosure of commons and privatization of public property. … The message is clear: we must never treat the earth as a ‘common treasury.’ We must be ruthless and greedy or else we will perish.” (Boal 2007)

In Canada, conservative lobbyists use arguments derived from Hardin’s political tract to explain away poverty on First Nations’ reserves, and to argue for further dismantling of indigenous communities. A study published by the influential Fraser Institute urges privatization of reserve land:

“[T]hese large amounts of land, with their attendant natural resources, will never yield their maximum benefit to Canada’s native people as long as they are held as collective property subject to political management. … collective property is the path of poverty, and private property is the path of prosperity.” (Fraser 2002: 16-17)

This isn’t just right-wing posturing. Canada’s federal government, which has refused to sign the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, announced in 2007 that it will “develop approaches to support the development of individual property ownership on reserves,” and created a $300 million fund to do just that.

In Hardin’s world, poverty has nothing to do with centuries of racism, colonialism and exploitation: poverty is inevitable and natural in all times and places, the product of immutable human nature. The poor bring it on themselves by having too many babies and clinging to self-destructive collectivism.

The tragedy of the commons is a useful political myth — a scientific-sounding way of saying that there is no alternative to the dominant world order.

Stripped of excess verbiage, Hardin’s essay asserted, without proof, that human beings are helpless prisoners of biology and the market. Unless restrained, we will inevitably destroy our communities and environment for a few extra pennies of profit. There is nothing we can do to make the world better or more just.  In 1844 Friedrich Engels described a similar argument as a “repulsive blasphemy against man and nature.” Those words apply with full force to the myth of the tragedy of the commons.

Ian Angus is editor of Climate and Capitalism and an associate editor of Socialist Voice

Update: See also A reply to criticisms and questions about this article

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Works cited in this article

Farmland

The biggest roadblock standing in the way of many people’s recognition of the importance of the commons came tumbling down when Indiana University professor Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize for Economics.

Over many decades, Ostrom has documented how various communities manage common resources—grazing lands, forests, irrigation waters, fisheries—equitably and sustainably over the long term. The Nobel Committee’s recognition of her work effectively debunks popular theories about the Tragedy of the Commons, which hold that private property is the only effective method to prevent finite resources from being ruined or depleted.

Awarding the world’s most prestigious economics prize to a scholar who champions cooperative behavior greatly boosts the legitimacy of the commons as a framework for solving our social and environmental problemsOstrom’s work also challenges the current economic orthodoxy that there are few, if any, alternatives to privatization and markets in generating wealth and human well being.

The Tragedy of the Commons refers to a scenario in which commonly held land is inevitably degraded because everyone in a community is allowed to graze livestock there. This parable was popularized by wildlife biologist Garrett Hardin in the late 1960s, and was embraced as a principle by the emerging environmental movement. But Ostrom’s research refutes this abstract concept with the real life experience from places like Nepal, Kenya and Guatemala.

“When local users of a forest have a long-term perspective, they are more likely to monitor each other’s use of the land, developing rules for behavior,” she cites as an example. “It is an area that standard market theory does not touch.”

Garrett Hardin himself later revised his own view, noting that what he described was actually the Tragedy of the Unmanaged Commons.

“What we have ignored is what citizens can do and the importance of real involvement.”

-Elinor Ostrom

Columbia University economist Joseph Stiglitz, also a Nobel winner, commented, “Conservatives used the Tragedy of the Commons to argue for property rights, and that efficiency was achieved as people were thrown off the commons…What Ostrom has demonstrated is the existence of social control mechanisms that regulate the use of the commons without having to resort to property rights.”

The Nobel Committee’s choice of Ostrom is significant considering that many winners of the prize since it was initiated in 1968 have been zealous advocates of unrestricted markets, such as Milton Friedman, whose selection helped fuel the rise of market theory as the be-all, end-all of economics since the 1980s. Policies based upon this narrow worldview sparked the rise of corporate power and the diminishment of government’s role in protecting the commons.

While right-wing thinkers scoffed at the possibility of resources being shared in a way that maintains the common good, arguing that private property is the only practical strategy to prevent this tragedy, Ostrom’s scholarship shows otherwise.

“What we have ignored is what citizens can do and the importance of real involvement of the people involved,” she explains. 

A classic example of this is an acequia, a centuries-old tradition of a cooperative irrigation in New Mexico and Colorado where the small flow of water available for agriculture is allocated by the community as a whole through a democratic process.

Ostrom is the first woman to be awarded the economics prize, which some observers say helps explain her emphasis on the role of people’s relationships in our economic arrangements rather than the focus on individualized market choices expounded by many male winners of the Nobel.

Equally noteworthy is the fact that Ostrom was not trained as an economist, but as a political scientist—a factor that may be even more useful in explaining her outside-the-box approach to economics.

Yale economist Robert Schiller, quoted in the New York Times, welcomed the merging of the two fields. “Economics has become too isolated and stuck on the view that markets are efficient and self-regulating. It has derailed our thinking.”

Elinor Ostrom has always been explicit in recognizing the importance of the commons—she helped found the International Association for the Study of the Commons, also based at Indiana University—and her selection as a Nobel Laureate marks an early milestone in the emergence of a commons-based society. Her works shows that our social, environmental and personal advancement depends on the vitality of the commons.

YES! Magazine’s special issue, Reclaiming the Commons 

The Non-Tragedy of the Commons, By John Tierney in the NYTimes.com, 15 Oct 2009

The 2009 Nobel Prize for economics is a useful reminder of how easy it is for scientists to go wrong, especially when their mistake jibes with popular beliefs or political agendas.

Elinor Ostrom of Indiana University shared the prize for her research into the management of “commons,” which has been a buzzword among ecologists since Garrett Hardin’s 1968 article Science, “The Tragedy of the Commons.” His fable about a common pasture that is ruined by overgrazing became one of the most-quoted articles ever published by that journal, and it served as a fundamental rationale for the expansion of national and international regulation of the environment. His fable was a useful illustration of a genuine public-policy problem — how do you manage a resource that doesn’t belong to anyone? — but there were a couple of big problems with the essay and its application.

First, Dr. Hardin himself misapplied the fable. Declaring that “overpopulation” was a tragedy of the commons, he warned that “freedom to breed will bring ruin to all.” He and others advocated a “lifeboat ethic” of denying food aid, even during emergencies, to poor countries with rapidly growing populations. But “overpopulation” was not even a theoretical example of the tragedy of the commons. Parents are not like the cattle owners who profit individually by adding cows to the pasture (while collectively destroying it). Parents, unlike the cattle owners, have to pay to feed and house and educate their children, and the high economic costs of children are one reason that birth rates have declined around the world — without any of the coercion discussed by Dr. Hardin and some other ecologists (like Paul Ehrlich).

The second problem arising from Dr. Hardin’s fable was the presumption that a commons needed to be regulated by national and international agencies. Dr. Hardin didn’t explicitly make that generalization in the essay — he noted that the tragedy could be avoided either by regulating the commons or by converting it to private property — but others in the environmental movement essentially drew that conclusion. Although some greens talked about the virtue of “acting locally,” major environmental groups lobbied in Washington for expanded federal authority, and they urged the rest of the world to follow the American and European example by creating national rules governing commons like forests and fisheries.

But too often those commons ended up in worse shape once they were put under the control of distant bureaucrats who lacked the expertise or the incentives to do the job properly. Dr. Hardin and his disciples had failed to appreciate how often the tragedy of the commons had been averted thanks to ingenious local institutions and customs. Dr. Ostrom won the Nobel for her work analyzing those local institutions. In an interview at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, Dr. Ostrom discussed the damage that had been done by those who had supplanted the local institutions:

International donors and nongovernmental organizations, as well as national governments and charities, have often acted, under the banner of environmental conservation, in a way that has unwittingly destroyed the very social capital — shared relationship, norms, knowledge and understanding — that has been used by resource users to sustain the productivity of natural capital over the ages. The effort to preserve biodiversity should not lead to the destruction of institutional diversity. . . . These institutions are most in jeopardy when central government officials assume that they do not exist (or are not effective) simply because the government has not put them in place.

Another Nobel laureate economist, Vernon Smith, described her work in an interview with Ivan Osorio for the Competitive Enterprise Institute:

She’s looked at a huge number of commons problems in fisheries, grazing, water, fishing water rights, and stuff like that. She finds that the commons problem is solved by many of these institutions, but not all of them. Some of them cannot make it work. She’s interested in why some of them work and some of them don’t.

One example is the Swiss alpine cheese makers. They had a commons problem. They live very high, and they have a grazing commons for their cattle. They solved that problem in the year 1200 A.D. For about 800 years, these guys have had that problem solved. They have a simple rule: If you’ve got three cows, you can pasture those three cows in the commons if you carried them over from last winter. But you can’t bring new cows in just for the summer. It’s very costly to carry cows over to the winter—they need to be in barns and be heated, they have to be fed. [The cheese makers] tie the right to the commons to a private property right with the cows.

Letting cheese makers set their own rules is an example of what Dr. Ostrom calls polycentric governance. In the interview at the Mercatus Center, she explained the advantages of trusting locals:

The strength of polycentric governance systems is each of the subunits has considerable autonomy to experiment with diverse rules for a particular type of resource system and with different response capabilities to external shock. In experimenting with rule combinations within the smaller-scale units of a polycentric system, citizens and officials have access to local knowledge, obtain rapid feedback from their own policy changes, and can learn from the experience of other parallel units.

Here’s a paper by Dr. Ostrom on fisheries. Here’s a a report for PERC by Donald Leal that summarizes Dr. Ostrom’s research: “Her studies of well-managed, commonly-owned property show that well-defined boundaries, a strong community tradition, and absence of government interference can preserve resources.”

You read more about Dr. Ostrom’s work in these posts from David Bollier at Forbes.com, Daniel and my colleague Catherine Rampell.

As Catherine notes, the comedian Larry David explains one way to avoid the tragedy of the commons in an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Mr. David discusses the tradition requiring guests at a party to refrain from eating too many hors d’oeuvres at once. After your first helping, he says, you have to wait 20 minutes and make sure that the food isn’t disappearing too quickly before you go back for seconds. Does that qualify as polycentric governance?

By David Bollier in Forbes Magazine 

Elinor Ostrom And The Digital Commons

Old fables die hard. That’s surely been the history of the so-called “tragedy of the commons,” one of the most durable myths of the past generation. In a famous 1968 essay, biologist Garrett Hardin alleged that it is nearly impossible for people to manage shared resources as a commons. Invariably someone will let his sheep over-graze a shared pasture, and the commons will collapse. Or so goes the fable.

In fact, as Professor Elinor Ostrom’s pioneering scholarship over the past three decades has demonstrated, self-organized communities of “commoners” are quite capable of managing forests, fisheries and other finite resources without destroying them. On Monday, Ostrom won a Nobel Prize in Economics for explaining how real-life commons work, especially in managing natural resources.

Contrived “prisoner’s dilemma” experiments have long purported to show the futility and irrationality of cooperation with others. But Ostrom’s work has shown that people can in fact develop systems of communication and coordination to work together to manage collective wealth. They can cultivate the reciprocal trust and social norms needed to allocate scarce resources fairly. They can devise effective rules and graduated sanctions for punishing “free riders” and vandals. A “tragedy,” while always possible, is hardly inevitable.

Ostrom’s landmark 1990 book, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, explains how these principles play out in different contexts–among farmers in Valencia, Spain, who have managed water-irrigation canals for nearly 1,000 years, among Swiss villagers, who have sustainably managed alpine grazing meadows for centuries, and many others.

At a moment when the mysteries of environmental sustainability remain elusive, Ostrom’s scholarship has much to say. For example, if traditional government regulation is too blunt and unresponsive to local circumstances, Ostrom has proposed “limited-purpose governmental enterprises” that let participants work out the rules themselves, subject to certain overarching design principles (clear boundaries to the commons, participation by everyone affected, monitoring, etc.). Such approaches let people devise governance regimes that are tailored to the peculiarities of the local resource and can draw upon the commoners’ personal familiarity with it.

“Bureaucrats sometimes do not have the correct information, while citizens and users of resources do,” Ostrom recently told a reporter. The great virtue of the commons is that it can be a responsive, effective way to manage a resource in the public interest without command-and-control regulation and legalisms.

Perhaps the most vivid example of this scenario is the Internet. Thanks to a shared set of non-proprietary technical protocols that let different types of computers interoperate with each other, the Internet has become the largest, most robust commons in history. Anyone can form their own niche community to curate and share photos, music, videos, blog posts, research and much else.

Although Ostrom has not written extensively about the Internet and online commons, her work clearly speaks to the ways that people can self-organize themselves to take care of resources that they care about. The power of digital commons can be seen in the runaway success of Linux and other open-source software. It is evident, too, in the explosive growth of Wikipedia, Craigslist (classified ads), Flickr (photo-sharing), the Internet Archive (historical Web artifacts) and Public.Resource.org (government information). Each commons acts as a conscientious steward of its collective wealth.

People who do music remixes and video mashups have formed their own commons, as have scientists who publish their research in open-access journals managed by their disciplines rather than by commercial publishers. There are digital commons devoted to compiling “open textbooks” (Wikibooks), sharing university course curricula (M.I.T.’s OpenCourseWare) and assembling neuroscientific research strewn across the Web (the Neurocommons project), among many others.

A key reason that all these Internet commons flourish is because the commoners do not have to get permission from, or make payments to, a corporate middleman. They can build what they want directly, and manage their work as they wish. The cable and telephone companies that provide access to the Internet are not allowed to favor large corporate users with superior service while leaving the rest of us–including upstart competitors and non-market players–with slower, poorer-quality service.

In an earlier time, this principle was known as “common carriage”–the idea that everyone shall have roughly equivalent access and service, without discrimination. Today, in the Internet context, it is known as “net neutrality.”

Net neutrality is a key reason why the Internet has been so phenomenally generative. Because the Internet functions as a commons, it enables anyone to find others, strike up a collaboration and generate useful stuff without first having to pay a premium fee, raise capital or persuade a corporate gatekeeper that the idea is marketable. Unsuspected types of value can surface and develop easily, often evolving into new markets that disrupt entrenched businesses. Examples: open-source software, wi-fi, the Internet Movie Database and podcasting.

It’s an idea that Elinor Ostrom has spent her career documenting: With an appropriate policy architecture, the commoners can take charge of their own problems and devise their own rules and social norms to manage their shared wealth.

Now that the Nobel Prize has honored Ostrom’s pioneering research, it’s time to banish old prejudices about the “tragedy of the commons,” move beyond the stilted “government vs. market” debate and explore the rich promise of the commons.

Bollier is the author of Viral Spiral: How the Commoners Built a Digital Republic of Their Own and an editor at Onthecommons.org.

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