The Tragedy of the Commons

Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.

– Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons” (1968)

Key Terms

Commons. In the context of the tragedy of the commons, the “commons” specifically refers to some open-access communal resource.2 This resource could be virtually anything, from fields to oceans to the big bowls of candy that some houses put out for trick-or-treaters on Halloween.

Malthusianism. Malthusianism is the idea that, because the human population increases exponentially while the planet’s resources only increase linearly, it is inevitable that humanity will run up against widespread famine, poverty, and death, unless some form of population control is implemented.

History

The concept of the tragedy of the commons was originally described by the British economist William Forster Lloyd, in a lecture he gave on “checks to the population” at Oxford University in 1832.3 However, it wasn’t popularized until more than 130 years later, when Garrett Hardin, an American ecologist, published an essay titled “The Tragedy of the Commons.”

To illustrate the concept, Hardin used the example of a communal pasture, which herdsmen can use to graze their cattle. According to Hardin, “as a rational being,” each herdsman will want to keep as many cattle in the pasture as possible, to maximize the benefit they can extract from it. But this is to the detriment of the collective: while every individual has ample incentive to increase their gains, they have little incentive to preserve the resource for the good of others. In Hardin’s words, “Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit—in a world that is limited.” Eventually, the pasture, a finite resource, will be destroyed by overgrazing, leaving nobody able to use it.

Consequences

The idea of the tragedy of the commons has been extremely influential in the fields of environmentalism, ecology, economics, political science, and elsewhere.4 For several decades, it was more or less unanimously accepted that the fate of unregulated communal resources was to be overexploited and destroyed.5 Ecological and environmental issues such as sustainability are frequently viewed through the lens of the tragedy of the commons.

Belief in the inevitability of the tragedy of the commons has also led many economists to advocate for increased privatization, viewing property rights as one of the only things that can deter people from wrecking natural resources: once somebody has a personal stake in maintaining a resource, they’re incentivized to adjust their usage of it, to maximize gains without outstripping the ability of that resource to naturally replenish itself.2

Controversies

For all its influence, the tragedy of the commons has also stirred up a fair amount of controversy. First, many academics have taken issue with Hardin’s claims, arguing that the tragedy of the commons is far from a foregone conclusion, and that it is entirely possible to manage commons in a way that protects them from being depleted. Many others are troubled by the ideological tradition that this concept belongs to, and by the political views held by Hardin himself.

Like the standard economic theories of the time, the tragedy of the commons is founded on the central assumption that human beings are selfish, rational actors; that we are motivated solely by self-interest, and that we will always seize on chances to enrich ourselves, with little regard for others. But, as any behavioral economist will tell you, this assumption turns out not to be supported by the data. People are often irrational, and they often act against their own interests. Knowing what we now know about human behavior, the tragedy of the commons should raise some eyebrows.

Still, the inevitability of the tragedy of the commons didn’t really come into question until 2009, when economist Elinor Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for her work on governing the commons. (Ostrom had actually been conducting her research in this area since the 1950s, but she did not gain wider renown until she was recognized by the Nobel committee.) By examining resource management in societies around the world, Ostrom showed that people can, and do, regulate the use of the commons to prevent their overuse. In contrast with Hardin’s cynical portrait of human beings as singularly self-centered actors, her work found that even in the absence of government regulation, communities usually come up with their own systems to regulate commons—and that systems maintained by average citizens actually outperformed the “fancy” government systems.6

Even more troubling is the belief system lurking behind the theory. Lloyd and Hardin were both inspired by the work of Thomas Robert Malthus, an English economist who believed that unchecked population growth would inevitably outpace the earth’s capacity to keep producing food, leading to widespread famine (a “Malthusian catastrophe”). Although many modern economists argue that Malthus was simply wrong—the global population now sits at more than 8 billion, and the apocalypse hasn’t come for us yet—his ideas have often been invoked to justify human rights abuses, including eugenics, in the name of population control.7

Hardin was known to espouse some particularly hateful beliefs. Labeled a white nationalist by the Southern Poverty Law Center, he was staunchly anti-immigration (particularly non-white immigration), supported the forced sterilization of “feeble-minded individuals,” and advocated for the elimination of social programs, the logic being that welfare and other social security nets encouraged overpopulation by allowing certain groups to “breed” unfettered.1,8

None of this is to say that humans never plunder and deplete shared resources: ongoing crises such as overfishing and deforestation demonstrate that we are plenty capable of doing so. But we should be cautious of the claim that this tragedy is an unavoidable endpoint, and instead look to community-based resource management systems to avert such outcomes.

Case study: Pandemic supplies

As the COVID-19 pandemic took off around the world, many grocery stores saw their shelves emptied of food and other supplies. In a fit of panic buying, some consumers were stockpiling huge amounts of product—in many cases, more than what was actually needed in their households at the time. The problem was compounded when photos of barren supermarkets started to make their way into the news, spurring more and more people to get in on the feeding frenzy for fear that if they didn’t act fast, they’d be left with nothing.

In the short term, some essentials, such as Lysol wipes (and, famously, toilet paper), became nearly impossible to find. In some cases, this was largely thanks to individuals who bought up massive quantities in order to resell them at a higher price. In mid-March, The New York Times reported that one man had purchased more than 17,000 bottles of hand sanitizer and had been flipping them for several times their original value, until Amazon banned his storefront for price gouging.9

The run on grocery stores in the early days of the pandemic is an example of the tragedy of the commons: individuals acting in their own self-interest deplete (though only temporarily) important resources, making them inaccessible to others who needed them.10

Related TDL content

“Taking a Hard Look at Democracy” – Tom Spiegler and Nathan Collett

In the past few years, a resurgence of populist, far-right leaders has shaken many people’s faith in democracy as a form of governance. In this article, TDL co-founder Tom Spiegler and associate editor Nathan Collett discuss the state of democracy, including why a lack of trust in government can encourage the tragedy of the commons.

Sources

  1. Hardin, G. (1968). The tragedy of the commons. Science, 162(3859), 1243-1248. DOI: 10.1126/science.162.3859.1243
  2. McArdle, M. (2012, May 22). Property rights and the tragedy of the commons. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/05/property-rights-and-the-tragedy-of-the-commons/257549/
  3. Lloyd, W. F. (1833). Two lectures on the checks to population.
  4. Mildenberger, M. (2019, April 23). The tragedy of the tragedy of the Commons. Scientific American Blog Network. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/voices/the-tragedy-of-the-tragedy-of-the-commons/
  5. Nobel Media. (n.d.). The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel 2009. NobelPrize.org. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/economic-sciences/2009/ostrom/facts/
  6. Battersby, S. (2017). News Feature: Can humankind escape the tragedy of the commons?. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(1), 7-10.
  7. Shermer, M. (2016, May 1). Why Malthus is still wrong. Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-malthus-is-still-wrong/
  8. Garrett Hardin. (n.d.). Southern Poverty Law Center. https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/individual/garrett-hardin
  9. Nicas, J. (2020, March 14). He has 17,700 bottles of hand sanitizer and nowhere to sell them. The New York Times – Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/14/technology/coronavirus-purell-wipes-amazon-sellers.html
  10. Dwyer, C. (2020, April 3). What COVID-19 tells us about the tragedy of the Commons. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/thoughts-thinking/202004/what-covid-19-tells-us-about-the-tragedy-the-commons

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