The Tragedy of the Commons

I’ve created a video in which I explain Garrett Hardin’s tragedy of the commons. It outlines Hardin’s argument and explains some problems with it using the historical English commons for illustration:

I am also working on a follow-up about the justifications and consequences of the English enclosures.

Here is a transcript (Added 2012-06-16):

The tragedy of the commons is an argument often used for the privatization of shared or public resources. The title comes from an influential paper by Garrett Hardin in 1968.

Hardin takes as his model the shared pasture of the medieval peasant village. In his model, this pasture is open to anybody who wants to send cattle there. So if I’m a peasant, and here’s my skinny cow, I can send her to the common pasture to fatten her up.

Of course, other peasants are going to do the same thing. Hardin argues that it’s in each of our interests to maximize our benefit or profit from the pasture by sending as many cows as we can. The problem is, if there are too many cows they will gobble up all the grass and ruin the pasture for everybody.

Hardin calls this a tragedy. Not only because it’s a bad outcome: but because, he argues, it’s inevitable. Even though I know that sending too many cows will use up the land, I also know that if I don’t do it, somebody else probably will – so I might as well get the grass while the going is good. Everybody knows this, and reasoning the same we all collectively destroy the pasture.

This has happened with real world resources: for example, fishing stocks in the oceans. Commercial fishing fleets regularly over-fish. If I’m a fishing fleet operator, I know that the fish that are there today may not be there tomorrow because someone else may catch them. So even though in the long run it’s going to destroy my business, it’s in my interests to catch everything I can now and profit as much as I can.

One of the solutions given to this is regulation by the central government. The problem with that is that the government often doesn’t have a lot of information about what’s actually happening, so it’s difficult for them to regulate use of the resource (this is really obvious in the case of fish).

Another proposal that’s often made is privatization. Instead of having a shared pasture, we divide it up into individually owned plots. So I own my piece of land, and I graze my cows there. And I know that I’m not going to over-graze. Likewise, I’m not going to let anybody else over-graze my area either. All the owners can do this, and hence the resource can be used efficiently.

That’s the argument. However, it doesn’t reflect what really happened in the real commons, particularly the famous commons in England. There are a few assumptions that Hardin makes that don’t actually correspond to what happened there.

The first is the assumption that peasants want to maximize their profit. The truth is that peasants in the commons weren’t interested in maximizing their profit at all because they weren’t operating in a money economy.

The other assumption is that the people using the commons don’t communicate. Each is treated as an individual who is reasoning on his own to maximize his benefit.

And finally, the commons is treated as something that’s open to everyone. In reality, in the real commons, the commons was not simply a resource. We have to zoom out a bit and look at the village around it: and realize that it’s part of a community of peasants who live together and work beside each other – and communicate. And, as I said, they’re not operating in a market or money economy. They’re not buying their food at a supermarket: they’re growing it themselves. The main use of peasants for money was to pay taxes, as it happens.

These peasants know that because they rely on this resource for food, if they don’t preserve it, they will starve. Of course they don’t want to starve, so they ensure that it’s not ruined. They regulate it, and they watch each other to make sure that nobody overuses the resource.

The result was that the commons in England existed successfully for hundreds of years and never succumbed to tragedy. And likewise, many other commons arrangements around the world survived for long periods of time. Elinor Ostrom, an economist, wrote a book called Governing the Commons about commons arrangements in many different societies, and how they succeeded. One of her examples, in fact, is a fishery. She won a Nobel Prize in 2009 for her work.

So the tragedy of the commons is not inevitable. Nevertheless, the peasant commons in England were ultimately enclosed. But not because they succumbed to tragedy. Ironically, the few cases we know of tragedy and over-grazing were a result of large landowners who deliberately over-grazed the commons: not so that they could gain more fodder for their cattle, but so that the commons would fail and would be privatized. Where the theory has privatization as a solution to over-grazing, in reality it was a motive for over-grazing.

In any case, economists will argue that there were a number of economic benefits to enclosure: and this is true. Private owners of land were prompter about adopting new innovations and improving agricultural output, although the benefits may not have been very great. But on a larger scale, the result for the peasants was devastating. They no longer had the means of sustenance in their villages. Hundreds of villages vanished. They were abandoned, as the people who had lived there went elswhere looking for work: looking for a way to get food.

But I’ll talk about that in another video.