Trust it to be John Quarterman, who always seems so really smart when I get to be in the same room with him, to be the one to draw my attention to Debunking the Tragedy of the Commons.
When Garrett Hardin published his famous article about the “tragedy of the commons” in Science in December 1968, he cited no evidence whatsoever for his assertion that a commons would always be overgrazed; that community-owned resources would always be mismanaged. Quite a bit of evidence was already available, but he ignored it, because it said quite the opposite: villagers would band together to manage their commons, including setting limits (stints) on how many animals any villager could graze, and they would enforce those limits.
Finding evidence for Hardin's thesis is much harder…
The source is Ian Angus, Links, International Journal of Socialist Renewal, Debunking the `Tragedy of the Commons' (August 24, 2008).
Meanwhile, says John,
So privatization is not, as so many disciples of Hardin have argued, the cure for the non-existant tragedy of the commons. Rather, privatization can be the enemy of the common management of common resources.
This dovetails with some interesting recent legal work, such as Michael Heller's new book, The Gridlock Economy: How Too Much Ownership Wrecks Markets, Stops Innovation, and Costs Lives.
In any case, it's interesting to learn that one of the articles I found most influential in college has a slight empirical problem.
Trouble is, I think I may still believe it, since the tragedy of the commons seems to capture something one sees, or thinks one sees, in real life. As a result I still think in many, most, but not all, cases markets, or managed markets, are the way to structure large swaths of large-scale social and economic organization.
Too much economics Kool-Aid?