The tragedy of the commons is a term used in social science to
describe a situation in a shared-resource system where individual
users acting independently according to their own self-interest behave
contrary to the common good of all users by depleting or spoiling that
resource through their collective action. The concept and phrase
originated in an essay written in 1833 by the British economist
William Forster Lloyd, who used a hypothetical example of the effects
of unregulated grazing on common land (also known as a "common") in
the British Isles. The concept became widely known over a century
later due to an article written by the American ecologist and
Garrett Hardin in 1968. In this modern economic
context, commons is taken to mean any shared and unregulated resource
such as atmosphere, oceans, rivers, fish stocks, or even an office
It has been argued that the very term 'tragedy of the Commons' is a
misnomer, since 'the commons' referred to land resources with rights
jointly owned by members of a community, and no individual outside the
community had any access to the resource. However, the term is now
used in social science and economics when describing a problem where
all individuals have equal and open access to a resource. Hence,
'tragedy of open access regimes' or simply 'the open access problem'
are more apt terms.'
The 'tragedy of the commons' is often cited in connection with
sustainable development, meshing economic growth and environmental
protection, as well as in the debate over global warming. It has also
been used in analyzing behavior in the fields of economics,
evolutionary psychology, anthropology, game theory, politics, taxation
Although common resource systems have been known to collapse due to
overuse (such as in over-fishing), many examples have existed and
still do exist where members of a community with access to a common
resource co-operate or regulate to exploit those resources prudently
1.1 Lloyd's pamphlet
1.2 Garrett Hardin's article
1.3 The "Commons" as a modern resource concept
2.1 Metaphoric meaning
2.2 Modern commons
3.1 Application to evolutionary biology
4.1 Psychological factors
4.2 Strategic factors
4.3 Structural factors
5.1 Non-governmental solution
5.2 Governmental solutions
5.2.3 Internalizing externalities
7 Comedy of the Commons
8 See also
10 External links
In 1833, the English economist
William Forster Lloyd published a
pamphlet which included a hypothetical example of over-use of a common
resource. This was the situation of cattle herders sharing a common
parcel of land on which they are each entitled to let their cows
graze, as was the custom in English villages. He postulated that if a
herder put more than his allotted number of cattle on the common,
overgrazing could result. For each additional animal, a herder could
receive additional benefits, but the whole group shared damage to the
commons. If all herders made this individually rational economic
decision, the common could be depleted or even destroyed, to the
detriment of all.
Garrett Hardin's article
The Tragedy of the Commons
13 December 1968
In 1968, ecologist
Garrett Hardin explored this social dilemma in his
article "The Tragedy of the Commons", published in the journal
Science. The essay derived its title from the pamphlet by Lloyd,
which he cites, on the over-grazing of common land.
Hardin discussed problems that cannot be solved by technical means, as
distinct from those with solutions that require "a change only in the
techniques of the natural sciences, demanding little or nothing in the
way of change in human values or ideas of morality". Hardin focused on
human population growth, the use of the Earth's natural resources, and
the welfare state. Hardin argued that if individuals relied on
themselves alone, and not on the relationship of society and man, then
the number of children had by each family would not be of public
concern. Parents breeding excessively would leave fewer descendants
because they would be unable to provide for each child adequately.
Such negative feedback is found in the animal kingdom. Hardin said
that if the children of improvident parents starved to death, if
overbreeding was its own punishment, then there would be no public
interest in controlling the breeding of families. Hardin blamed the
welfare state for allowing the tragedy of the commons; where the state
provides for children and supports overbreeding as a fundamental human
Malthusian catastrophe is inevitable. Consequently, in his
article, Hardin lamented the following proposal from the United
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Universal Declaration of Human Rights describes the family as the
natural and fundamental unit of society. [Article 16] It follows
that any choice and decision with regard to the size of the family
must irrevocably rest with the family itself, and cannot be made by
— U Thant, Statement on
Population by the Secretary-General of the
In addition, Hardin also pointed out the problem of individuals acting
in rational self-interest by claiming that if all members in a group
used common resources for their own gain and with no regard for
others, all resources would still eventually be depleted. Overall,
Hardin argued against relying on conscience as a means of policing
commons, suggesting that this favors selfish individuals –
often known as free riders – over those who are more
In the context of avoiding over-exploitation of common resources,
Hardin concluded by restating Hegel's maxim (which was quoted by
Engels), "freedom is the recognition of necessity". He suggested that
"freedom" completes the tragedy of the commons. By recognizing
resources as commons in the first place, and by recognizing that, as
such, they require management, Hardin believed that humans "can
preserve and nurture other and more precious freedoms".
The "Commons" as a modern resource concept
Hardin's article was the start of the modern use of "Commons" as a
term connoting a shared resource. As Frank van Laerhoven & Elinor
Ostrom have stated: "Prior to the publication of Hardin’s article on
the tragedy of the commons (1968), titles containing the words 'the
commons', 'common pool resources,' or 'common property' were very rare
in the academic literature." They go on to say: "In 2002, Barrett and
Mabry conducted a major survey of biologists to determine which
publications in the twentieth century had become classic books or
benchmark publications in biology. They report that Hardin’s 1968
article was the one having the greatest career impact on biologists
and is the most frequently cited".
Like Lloyd and
Thomas Malthus before him, Hardin was primarily
interested in the problem of human population growth. But in his
essay, he also focused on the use of larger (though finite) resources
such as the Earth's atmosphere and oceans, as well as pointing out the
"negative commons" of pollution (i.e., instead of dealing with the
deliberate privatization of a positive resource, a "negative commons"
deals with the deliberate commonization of a negative cost,
As a metaphor, the tragedy of the commons should not be taken too
literally. The "tragedy" is not in the word's conventional or theatric
sense, nor a condemnation of the processes that lead to it. Similarly,
Hardin's use of "commons" has frequently been misunderstood, leading
him to later remark that he should have titled his work "The Tragedy
of the Unregulated Commons".
The metaphor illustrates the argument that free access and
unrestricted demand for a finite resource ultimately reduces the
resource through over-exploitation, temporarily or permanently. This
occurs because the benefits of exploitation accrue to individuals or
groups, each of whom is motivated to maximize use of the resource to
the point in which they become reliant on it, while the costs of the
exploitation are borne by all those to whom the resource is available
(which may be a wider class of individuals than those who are
exploiting it). This, in turn, causes demand for the resource to
increase, which causes the problem to snowball until the resource
collapses (even if it retains a capacity to recover). The rate at
which depletion of the resource is realized depends primarily on three
factors: the number of users wanting to consume the common in
question, the consumptiveness of their uses, and the relative
robustness of the common.
The same concept is sometimes called the "tragedy of the fishers",
because fishing too many fish before or during breeding could cause
stocks to plummet.
The tragedy of the commons can be considered in relation to
environmental issues such as sustainability. The commons dilemma
stands as a model for a great variety of resource problems in society
today, such as water, forests, fish, and non-renewable energy
sources such as oil and coal.
Situations exemplifying the "tragedy of the commons" include the
overfishing and destruction of the Grand Banks, the destruction of
salmon runs on rivers that have been dammed – most prominently in
modern times on the
Columbia River in the Northwest United States, and
North Atlantic rivers – the devastation of the
sturgeon fishery – in modern Russia, but historically in the United
States as well – and, in terms of water supply, the limited water
available in arid regions (e.g., the area of the Aral Sea) and the Los
Angeles water system supply, especially at
Mono Lake and Owens Lake.
In economics, an externality is a cost or benefit that affects a party
who did not choose to incur that cost or benefit. Negative
externalities are a well-known feature of the "tragedy of the
commons". For example, driving cars has many negative externalities;
these include pollution, carbon emissions, and traffic accidents.
Every time 'Person A' gets in a car, it becomes more likely that
'Person Z' – and millions of others – will suffer in
each of those areas. Economists often urge the government to adopt
policies that "internalize" an externality.
More general examples (some alluded to by Hardin) of potential and
actual tragedies include:
Clearing rainforest for agriculture in southern Mexico.
Uncontrolled human population growth leading to overpopulation.
A preference for sons made people abort foetal girls. This results in
an imbalanced gender ratio.
Air, whether ambient air polluted by industrial emissions and cars
among other sources of air pollution, or indoor air
Water pollution, water crisis of over-extraction of
groundwater and wasting water due to overirrigation
Forests – Frontier logging of old growth forest and slash and
Energy resources and climate – Environmental residue of mining
and drilling, Burning of fossil fuels and consequential global warming
Habitat destruction and poaching leading to the
Holocene mass extinction
Human and wildlife conflict.
Oceans – Overfishing
Antibiotic Resistance Mis-use of antibiotics
anywhere in the world will eventually result in antibiotic resistance
developing at an accelerated rate. The resulting antibiotic resistance
has spread (and will likely continue to do so in the future) to other
bacteria and other regions, hurting or destroying the Antibiotic
Commons that is shared on a worldwide basis
Publicly shared resources
Spam email degrades the usefulness of the email system and increases
the cost for all users of the Internet while providing a benefit to
only a tiny number of individuals.
Vandalism and littering in public spaces such as parks, recreation
areas, and public restrooms.
Knowledge commons encompass immaterial and collectively owned goods in
the information age.
Including, for example, source code and software documentation in
software projects that can get "polluted" with messy code or
Skills acquisition and training, when all parties involved pass the
buck on implementing it.
Application to evolutionary biology
A parallel was drawn recently between the tragedy of the commons and
the competing behaviour of parasites that through acting selfishly
eventually diminish or destroy their common host. The idea has
also been applied to areas such as the evolution of virulence or
sexual conflict, where males may fatally harm females when competing
for matings. It is also raised as a question in studies of social
insects, where scientists wish to understand why insect workers do not
undermine the "common good" by laying eggs of their own and causing a
breakdown of the society.
The idea of evolutionary suicide, where adaptation at the level of the
individual causes the whole species or population to be driven
extinct, can be seen as an extreme form of an evolutionary tragedy of
the commons. From an evolutionary point of view, the creation
of the tragedy of the commons in pathogenic microbes may provide us
with advanced therapeutic methods.
The commons dilemma is a specific class of social dilemma in which
people's short-term selfish interests are at odds with long-term group
interests and the common good. In academia, a range of related
terminology has also been used as shorthand for the theory or aspects
of it, including resource dilemma, take-some dilemma, and common pool
Commons dilemma researchers have studied conditions under which groups
and communities are likely to under- or over-harvest common resources
in both the laboratory and field. Research programs have concentrated
on a number of motivational, strategic, and structural factors that
might be conducive to management of commons.
In game theory, which constructs mathematical models for individuals'
behavior in strategic situations, the corresponding "game", developed
by Hardin, is known as the Commonize Costs – Privatize Profits
Game (CC–PP game).
Kopelman, Weber, & Messick (2002), in a review of the experimental
research on cooperation in commons dilemmas, identify nine classes of
independent variables that influence cooperation in commons dilemmas:
social motives, gender, payoff structure, uncertainty, power and
status, group size, communication, causes, and frames. They organize
these classes and distinguish between psychological individual
differences (stable personality traits) and situational factors (the
environment). Situational factors include both the task (social and
decision structure) and the perception of the task.
Empirical findings support the theoretical argument that the cultural
group is a critical factor that needs to be studied in the context of
situational variables. Rather than behaving in line with economic
incentives, people are likely to approach the decision to cooperate
with an appropriateness framework. An expanded, four factor model
of the Logic of Appropriateness, suggests that the cooperation
is better explained by the question: "What does a person like me
(identity) do (rules) in a situation like this (recognition) given
this culture (group)?"
Strategic factors also matter in commons dilemmas. One often-studied
strategic factor is the order in which people take harvests from the
resource. In simultaneous play, all people harvest at the same time,
whereas in sequential play people harvest from the pool according to a
predetermined sequence – first, second, third, etc. There is a
clear order effect in the latter games: the harvests of those who come
first – the leaders – are higher than the harvest of
those coming later – the followers. The interpretation of this
effect is that the first players feel entitled to take more. With
sequential play, individuals adopt a first come-first served rule,
whereas with simultaneous play people may adopt an equality rule.
Another strategic factor is the ability to build up reputations.
Research[by whom?] found that people take less from the common pool in
public situations than in anonymous private situations. Moreover,
those who harvest less gain greater prestige and influence within
Much research has focused on when and why people would like to
structurally rearrange the commons to prevent a tragedy. Hardin stated
in his analysis of the tragedy of the commons that "Freedom in a
commons brings ruin to all." One of the proposed solutions is to
appoint a leader to regulate access to the common. Groups are more
likely to endorse a leader when a common resource is being depleted
and when managing a common resource is perceived as a difficult task.
Groups prefer leaders who are elected, democratic, and prototypical of
the group, and these leader types are more successful in enforcing
cooperation. A general aversion to autocratic leadership exists,
although it may be an effective solution, possibly because of the fear
of power abuse and corruption.
The provision of rewards and punishments may also be effective in
preserving common resources. Selective punishments for overuse can be
effective in promoting domestic water and energy conservation –
for example, through installing water and electricity meters in
houses. Selective rewards work, provided that they are open to
everyone. An experimental carpool lane in the Netherlands failed
because car commuters did not feel they were able to organize a
carpool. The rewards do not have to be tangible. In Canada,
utilities considered putting "smiley faces" on electricity bills of
customers below the average consumption of that customer`s
Externality § Possible solutions
Articulating solutions to the tragedy of the commons is one of the
main problems of political philosophy. In many situations, locals
implement (often complex) social schemes that work well. The best
governmental solution may be to do nothing. When these fail, there are
many possible governmental solutions such as privatization,
internalizing the externalities, and regulation.
Sometimes the best governmental solution may be to do nothing. Robert
Axelrod contends that even self-interested individuals will often find
ways to cooperate, because collective restraint serves both the
collective and individual interests. Anthropologist G. N. Appell
criticized those who cited Hardin to "impos[e] their own economic and
environmental rationality on other social systems of which they have
incomplete understanding and knowledge."
Political scientist Elinor Ostrom, who was awarded 2009's Nobel
Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for her work on the issue, and
others revisited Hardin's work in 1999. They found the tragedy of
the commons not as prevalent or as difficult to solve as Hardin
maintained, since locals have often come up with solutions to the
commons problem themselves. For example, it was found that a
commons in the Swiss Alps has been run by a collective of farmers
there to their mutual and individual benefit since 1517, in spite of
the farmers also having access to their own farmland. In general, it
is in the users of a commons interests to keep the common running and
complex social schemes are often invented by the users for maintaining
them at optimum efficiency.
Similarly, geographer Douglas L. Johnson remarks that many nomadic
pastoralist societies of Africa and the Middle East in fact "balanced
local stocking ratios against seasonal rangeland conditions in ways
that were ecologically sound", reflecting a desire for lower risk
rather than higher profit; in spite of this, it was often the case
that "the nomad was blamed for problems that were not of his own
making and were a product of alien forces." Independently finding
precedent in the opinions of previous scholars such as
Ibn Khaldun as
well as common currency in antagonistic cultural attitudes towards
non-sedentary peoples, governments and international organizations
have made use of Hardin's work to help justify restrictions on land
access and the eventual sedentarization of pastoral nomads despite its
weak empirical basis. Examining relations between historically nomadic
Bedouin Arabs and the Syrian state in the 20th century, Dawn Chatty
notes that "Hardin's argument […] was curiously accepted as the
fundamental explanation for the degradation of the steppe land" in
development schemes for the arid interior of the country, downplaying
the larger role of agricultural overexploitation in desertification as
it melded with prevailing nationalist ideology which viewed nomads as
socially backward and economically harmful.
Elinor Ostrom, and her colleagues looked at how real-world communities
manage communal resources, such as fisheries, land irrigation systems,
and farmlands, and they identified a number of factors conducive to
successful resource management. One factor is the resource itself;
resources with definable boundaries (e.g., land) can be preserved much
more easily. A second factor is resource dependence; there must be a
perceptible threat of resource depletion, and it must be difficult to
find substitutes. The third is the presence of a community; small and
stable populations with a thick social network and social norms
promoting conservation do better. A final condition is that there
be appropriate community-based rules and procedures in place with
built-in incentives for responsible use and punishments for overuse.
When the commons is taken over by non-locals, those solutions can no
longer be used.
Governmental solutions may be necessary when the above conditions are
not met (such as a community being too big or too unstable to provide
a thick social network). Examples of government regulation include
privatization, regulation, and internalizing the externalities.
One solution for some resources is to convert common good into private
property, giving the new owner an incentive to enforce its
sustainability. Libertarians and classical liberals cite the tragedy
of the commons as an example of what happens when Lockean property
rights to homestead resources are prohibited by a government. They
argue that the solution to the tragedy of the commons is to allow
individuals to take over the property rights of a resource, that is,
to privatize it.
In a typical example, governmental regulations can limit the amount of
a common good that is available for use by any individual. Permit
systems for extractive economic activities including mining, fishing,
hunting, livestock raising and timber extraction are examples of this
approach. Similarly, limits to pollution are examples of governmental
intervention on behalf of the commons. This idea is used by the United
Nations Moon Treaty,
Outer Space Treaty
Outer Space Treaty and
Law of the Sea Treaty
Law of the Sea Treaty as
well as the
World Heritage Convention
World Heritage Convention which involves the
international law principle that designates some areas or resources
the Common Heritage of Mankind.
In Hardin's essay, he proposed that the solution to the problem of
overpopulation must be based on "mutual coercion, mutually agreed
upon" and result in "relinquishing the freedom to breed". Hardin
discussed this topic further in a 1979 book, Managing the Commons,
co-written with John A. Baden. He framed this prescription in
terms of needing to restrict the "reproductive right", to safeguard
all other rights. Several countries have a variety of population
control laws in place.
Joachim Radkau thought Hardin advocates strict
management of common goods via increased government involvement or
international regulation bodies. An asserted impending "tragedy of
the commons" is frequently warned of as a consequence of the adoption
of policies which restrict private property and espouse expansion of
Privatization works when the person who owns the property (or rights
of access to that property) pays the full price of its exploitation.
As discussed above negative externalities (negative results, such as
air or water pollution, that do not proportionately affect the user of
the resource) is often a feature driving the tragedy of the commons.
Internalizing the externalities, in other words ensuring that the
users of resource pay for all of the consequences of its use, can
provide an alternate solution between privatization and regulation.
One example is gasoline taxes which are intended to include both the
cost of road maintenance and of air pollution. This solution can
provide the flexibility of privatization while minimizing the amount
of government oversight and overhead that is needed.
Derrick Jensen claims the tragedy of the commons
is used as propaganda for private ownership. He says it has been
used by the political right wing to hasten the final enclosure of the
"common resources" of third world and indigenous people worldwide, as
a part of the Washington Consensus. He argues that in true situations,
those who abuse the commons would have been warned to desist and if
they failed would have punitive sanctions against them. He says that
rather than being called "The Tragedy of the Commons", it should be
called "the Tragedy of the Failure of the Commons".
Hardin's work was also criticised as historically inaccurate in
failing to account for the demographic transition, and for failing to
distinguish between common property and open access resources. In
a similar vein, Carl Dahlman argues that commons were effectively
managed to prevent overgrazing. Likewise, Susan Jane Buck Cox
argues that the common land example used to argue this economic
concept is on very weak historical ground, and misrepresents what she
terms was actually the "triumph of the commons": the successful common
usage of land for many centuries. She argues that social changes and
agricultural innovation, and not the behaviour of the commoners, led
to the demise of the commons.
Some authors, like Yochai Benkler, say that with the rise of the
Internet and digitalisation, an economics system based on commons
becomes possible again. He wrote in his book
The Wealth of Networks
The Wealth of Networks in
2006 that cheap computing power plus networks enable people to produce
valuable products through non-commercial processes of interaction: "as
human beings and as social beings, rather than as market actors
through the price system". He uses the term 'networked information
economy' to describe a "system of production, distribution, and
consumption of information goods characterized by decentralized
individual action carried out through widely distributed, nonmarket
means that do not depend on market strategies." He also coined the
term 'commons-based peer production' to describe collaborative efforts
based on sharing information. Examples of commons-based peer
production are free and open source software and open-source hardware.
Comedy of the Commons
In certain cases, exploiting a resource more may be a good thing.
Carol M. Rose, in an 1986 article, discussed the concept of the
"comedy of the commons", where the public property in question
exhibits "increasing returns to scale" in usage (hence the phrase,
"the more the merrier"), in that the more people use the resource, the
higher the benefit to each one. Rose cites as examples commerce and
group recreational activities. According to Rose, public resources
with the "comedic" characteristic may suffer from under-investment
rather than over usage.
Credentialism and educational inflation
International Association for the Study of the Commons
Prisoner's Dilemma, wherein two parties may each act in an
individually beneficial fashion to the detriment of both.
Social reputation in fiction
Somebody else's problem
Stone Soup, the inverse of the tragedy.
Tragedy of the anticommons
Tyranny of small decisions
Unscrupulous diner's dilemma
The Evolution of Cooperation
Pacific bluefin tuna
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Look up tragedy of the commons in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
Original article by
Garrett Hardin from Science
The Digital Library of the Commons
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Commons by Ian Angus
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Commons Explained with Smurfs by Ryan Somma
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