The Tragedy of ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’

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?

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13 Responses to The Tragedy of ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’

  1. Debunking the Tragedy of the Commons is a lazy, intellectually dishonest essay. There’s a world of difference between its ideological cheap shots and Michael Heller’s careful work. Hardin’s original piece is indeed flawed, but Angus acts as though he’s the first person ever to notice those flaws, and in so doing completely misunderstands (indeed ignores) the thoughtful follow-on work of Elinor Ostrom and many others.

  2. JK says:

    Not to mention that we’ve seen the best application of “the commons” and how it inevitably led to murderous ruin: Communism, and it’s barely sustaining cousins in western Europe today. Unless you think that there is some mythical world where we will all graze sheep for a living. Obviously, it must be applied to modern life, using real, modern, people, where the evidence abounds that it just doesn’t work. No matter the best intentions of the community, it is human nature that some will want to maximize their own advantage in some way, within the system they are given. You can’t just ignore that, or think that man’s intellect will overcomes that natural tendancy. Some people will ALWAYS think they are too good for the lot they have been given.

    You want proof, go somewhere where young intellectuals are employed. Visit a Barnes & Noble or Borders. Go into the bathroom. 99.9% of the time, it will be as filthy as a gas station’s. Why, because people that work in bookstores are smart people. Smart people tend to think they are too good for certain tasks more often than less smart people. Therefore, when times comes to clean the bathroom in a bookstore, either nobody does it, or it is done badly and half-heartedly by people who are too good to be cleaning bathrooms. Personally, I have found it to be axiomatic that bookstores have filthy bathrooms, while Targets and Walmarts, where the intellectualoids would never deign to work, have nice bathrooms.

    Remember that in any communal situation, someone will still have to clean the toilets, and that’s a job nobody wants. You either have to force someone to clean the toilets (socialism), or you have to make it worth more to them than refusing (capitalism), either way, the toilets will need cleaning.

    The fact that the Commons will fail, should need no stated evidence at all to a modern mind. If it does, it shows that you just didn’t get the whole point of the last century.

  3. Joe says:

    To JK:

    Your statements are as evidence-free as the original text in question in this discussion. To suggest, as you do, that any argument needs no stated evidence is to remove facts from a discussion.

    Oh, about the bathrooms: so why are gas station bathrooms filthy? Too many PhDs pumping gas?

  4. Brautigan says:

    I never took the “tragedy of the commons” to be anything more than a theoretical construct, and as such it functions quite well. Look at the condition of the cod fishery, for example, where the lack of an effective multinational enforcement mechanism highlights the underlying fundamentals.

  5. michael says:

    The bathrooms strike me as likely being due to one or both of two facts (depending on location) that have little to do with the classic commons issues.

    1. In urban settings, like some bookstores, the bathrooms are used by people living on the street. The same mental illnesses that resulted in their being on the street may impact their hygiene and care for others.

    2. Gas stations on the road are the classic non-repeat player game. The classic commons, for better or worse, is a repeat-player game. (Incidentally, the non-repeat aspect also reduces the gas station management’s incentives to clean or police — practically no one will or won’t buy gas in the future based on the cleanliness of the restrooms.)

  6. JK says:

    But your construct presumes that bathroom cleanliness is mostly due to the actions/inaction of bathroom USERS. While a user can certainly affect a bathroom, the bathroom must them be cleaned by someone, and that someone is NEVER the user (as opposed to the employee). So ultimately, a bathroom’s cleanliness depends upon the attentiveness of the owners of that bathroom, not the users. If that means that the bathroom must be cleaned more often, then so be it, that’s what employees are paid to do. Unless you think that the (let’s say) ten employees of the bookstore, never go to the bathroom and notice how filthy it is! (I’ve actually been in the bathroom with employees, who seemed nonplussed by the filth, and certainly made no move to clean it.

    I don’t know about where you live, but I rarely, if ever, see homeless people in the bathrooms (or even store), of my local bookstore. The problem is almost certainly not local homeless making a mess due to mental ilness affecting their sense of cleanliness. And again, even if it is, why don’t the employees clean it up? I have YET to be in a bathroom at a nice bookstore than isn’t a mess. It would be shocking of it were not.

    As far as gas stations, most of the problem there is lack of staffing. gas stations generally don’t have the extra employees needed to achieve more than superficial cleanliness if that, over the course of a day. Depending on the station, security concerns can be in play as well as the general low profits of that business. If we assume (correctly, I think) that only an employee will clean a bathroom, then it’s hardly surprising that businesses with large bathroom traffic, but low staffing, will tend to be dirty. (though, I have to say that while station bathrooms are usually on the dirty side, I’ve been in a few that were very nicely maintained – in contrast to bookstores).

    And it’s not the the failure of the Commons idea needs no evidence, it’s that the evidence of its abject impossibility is all around us for everyone to see clearly. At least anyone that has been paying attention to how “self-run” anythings tend to fall flat. I use the bookstore bathroom as the simple and obvious example: Nobody, in any society, wants to clean the toilets, but SOMEONE has to. Among the group that tends to be employed at bookstores (liberal, fairly educated, non-professionals, the very people who tend to be a subset of the group most likely to espouse socialist ideas, in one form or another) nobody wants to volunteer to clean the bathrooms. either they are lazy, they don’t care, or nobody is in charge.

    I’m not trying to make this any bigger than it needs to be. Just check out the bathroom in your local bookstore, and ask yourself why nobody cleans the frigging thing!

  7. Blissex says:

    «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.»

    But that’s not a commons: that’s a co-op resource managed by a corporate body. It may be described as a good solution to the tragedy of the commons, but it is not about the commons. Realistically speaking there are very few commons left, some of them may be climate, high seas, the atmosphere.

    To test this assertion imagine: some stranger comes with a large flock to graze the commons. What do the villagers do? if they come out with pitchforks because he is stealing from their co-owned private resource, that’s not a commons.

  8. Reader says:

    This discussion of bookstore bathrooms is once again evidence-free. I don’t know where JK buys his books, but the bathrooms at the bookstores, including Borders, I frequent have quite nice bathrooms.

  9. RE says:

    That was my first thought as well Blissex. The villagers that band together are essentially dividing up the commons by dividing up the rights to graze on it.

    That and there are just so many examples, overfishing as Brautigan pointed out, overgrazing on federal lands in the past, cutting down of the rain forest currently (and our own deforestation issues in the 1800s), where we can see the tragedy of the commons -or at least situations that appear to fit the idea.

  10. A predictable response from Professor Froomkin.
    One of the attacks on historicism was that it claimed that by understanding it we could be free from history. But historicism originates in the assumption that we can’t. Individualism is your preference and your sensibility, but there’s no logical reason to say it describes the genesis of your actions.
    The difference between the chaos of southern Italy and the civility and repression (social and psychological) of Scandinavia is not the level of individualism but the difference in the foundations of social life.
    Geeks are historical phenomena. And the tragedies of the Soviet Union and Easter Island are not the tragedy of the collective any more than the tragedy of the United States is the tragedy of Democracy.

    Note: I liked the graphic I sent you and others, but it was too rough. I’m thinking we need a new Joseph Welch: “You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

    The right person, at the right time. It’s done.

  11. Mojo says:

    James Grimmelmann; Good points.

    JK; Strangely, the bathrooms in bookstores in the old Soviet Union were invariably pristine.

    Blissex; Sorry, you’re simply wrong. That is the exact definition of a commons. A commons isn’t some theoretical construct, it’s something that existed and worked well for hundreds of years. There are other, more efficient, means of accomplishing the same goal under the rapidly changing conditions of modern life, but it isn’t a unicorn.

  12. PHB says:

    To the person who said ‘that is not a commons’.

    On the contrary, a co-operative is precisely what a commons was. A commons is not a modern construct but a very ancient construct of British common law that predates communism, capitalism and pretty much every other -ism excepting the original feudalism.

    Commons were cleared areas of woodland. Clearing an area of woodland takes a serious amount of effort and not a little organization. The idea that the resulting product would be considered a limitless resource or treated carelessly is hopelessly naive.

    The concept of a ‘tragedy of the commons’ is not new either. Take a look at the enclosures movement in England and the Highland clearances and you will find the exact same argument being peddled and for the exact same purpose – to allow persons of property to acquire even more by turning public property into their own personal property.

    Economics has always been something of an intellectually bankrupt affair. Not the least of the unpleasant behaviors of many in the field being their predeliction to lecture the rest of us in condesending terms. They are the academic equivalent of chiropractors: the best that can be said for them is that some of them are not complete quacks but the worst of them are certainly every bit as bad as the peddlers of homeopathic cures.

    Now lest you think that an unduly harsh criticism of another discipline, I know of no other discipline in academia whose practitioners are so fond of using ‘you think that because you are an utterly ignorant fool’ as an argument. Reading through the comments above reveals more than a little of this sort of bullying.

    What we should take notice of is not just the intellectual arguments made for a policy position, but the consequences that flow from putting them into effect.

    Some years ago George Sorros wrote about a ‘regulatory cycle’ in which he predicts that regulation will eb and flow in cycles of 60 years or so, which is to say living memory. Deregulating the financial markets brings short term benefits but lays up longer term risks. Eventually the risks result in a series of catastrophic market failures at which point these risks become painfully apparent.

    Sinc then we have seen the rigging of the California energy market by Enron and co. This morning Leehman Brothers went under and Merill Lynch was acquired in a desperate attempt to prevent the rest of the Jenga pile collapsing.

    It may not be the best economic theory but unlike the folk in the economics dept he is able to explain the theory concisely and without insulting the intelligence of those who fail to agree with him.

  13. Yes, Elinor Ostrom has explored this subject in great depth, and won a Nobel Prize for it this year. Some thoughts on what that might have to do with the Internet:

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