Tragedy of the Commons

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accessed January 11, 2010

The tragedy of the commons refers to a dilemma described in an influential article by that name written by Garrett Hardin and first published in the journal Science in 1968.[1] The article describes a situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently, and solely and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource even when it is clear that it is not in anyone's long-term interest for this to happen.[2]

Central to Hardin's article is an example (first sketched in an 1833 pamphlet by William Forster Lloyd), of a hypothetical and simplified situation based on medieval land tenure in Europe, of herders sharing a common parcel of land, on which they are each entitled to let their cows graze. In Hardin's example, it is in each herder's interest to put the next (and succeeding) cows he acquires onto the land, even if the carrying capacity of the common is exceeded and it is temporarily or permanently damaged for all as a result. The herder receives all of the benefits from an additional cow, while the damage to the common is shared by the entire group. If all herders make this individually rational economic decision, the common will be depleted or even destroyed to the detriment of all.

A similar dilemma of the commons had previously been discussed by agrarian reformers since the 18th century.[3] Hardin's predecessors used the alleged tragedy, as well as a variety of examples from the Greek Classics, to justify the enclosure movement. Radkau sees Garrett Hardin's writings as having a different aim in that Hardin asks for a strict management of common goods via increased government involvement or/and international regulation bodies.[3]

Hardin's work has been criticised on the grounds of historical inaccuracy, and for failing to distinguish between common property and open access resources. Subsequent work by Elinor Ostrom and others suggest that using Hardin's work to argue for privatization of resources is an "overstatement" of the case.[4][5] Nonetheless, Ostrom recognizes that there are real problems, and even limited situations where the tragedy of the common applies to real-world resource management. [6] While the implications of Hardin's essay are broadly defined, a central point of his essay was that adding offspring to the human population was a freedom, and that in order to prevent the degradation of the earth and its ability to support human existence, humanity needed to cede the freedom to reproduce.[1]