The Myth of the Tragedy of the Commons

The Myth of the Tragedy of the Commons


Let’s say that we have three independent communities,
each with a section of pasture. In community A the pasture land is split up
amongst its residents, so each family privately owns a portion of the land and can do what
they want with it. In community C, this used to be the case,
but now the majority of the land is owned by a local entrepreneur, Carol. And in community b, the pasture land is mutually
owned by the public. Each of these three communities has taken
a different approach to ownership and the use of scarce resources. In community A, all members of the neighborhood
have read Hardin’s 1968 paper on the “Tragedy of the Commons.” Afraid that their neighbors would destroy
a commonly shared space, they have split up the land into privately owned parcels. Traditional and current economic doctrine
suggests that this approach to ownership is the most efficient and fair. While everyone has a right to own property,
those who are most productive with their ownership will prosper most. But this model assumes a lot. It quickly unravels if we add in the many
factors of real life. Some people are born with land, some plots
are fertile while some are shitty, someone knows the people who work on the zoning board
and are pals with the mayor. Structural inequities will influence this
system of ownership. This is only more cause for case A to turn
into case C. Carol went to Wharton and believes that commonly
shared resources will inevitably be overused. As a Wharton grad she’s an entrepreneur
and believes in economies of scale, and through her innovation and hard work she’s able to
buy out her neighbors, soon owning the majority of the pasture land. Nice Carol! Your Wharton education was worth it. Carol, an entrepreneur, looking to move on
to opportunities elsewhere, sells off the land to the highest bidder: Don Corp owns
and manages ten different pastures, and is motivated by its shareholders. Don Corp. is quick to impose their tried and
true business model in community C in order to increase profits. They restrict all community access to the
pasture, hire community members on an hourly basis, integrate the product with their global
supply chain, and lease some of the land to an energy exploration company. While this scenario won’t make it in the
traditional take of Hardin’s story of the commons and the power of private ownership,
this story of concentrated ownership is a common one today in america. Since 1973 worker productivity has gone up
75 percent while pay has only risen 9 percent, and since 1960 the real value of the minimum
wage decreasing over 40 percent! In the same period, the wages of the top 1
percent have grown 140 percent. The three wealthiest people in the United
States — Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Warren Buffett — own more wealth than the entire
bottom half of the population combined, a total of 160 million people (while eight men
own the same as the world’s bottom half). These facts show a striking disparity of economic
condition, that have led to especially precarious and volatile conditions for poor families. Faced by these statistics, it’s clear that
community A — where private but equal ownership seems to exist — is in fact often superseded
by the realities of private ownership and community C. Because it tends to turn into community C,
we are skeptical of the practices of community A. Community A is of the doctrine that if
we teach people how to fish they will be able to feed themselves, but overlooks the fact
that for most of the world, someone else owns the rod the pond and the bait. Now let’s take case B–This is where we live. We and their neighbors, share ownership of
the pasture. While Hardin would suggest that this would
inevitably lead to degradation and tragedy, us and our neighbors are not so easily duped. We’ve read Elinor Ostrom and Ian Angus and
recognize that throughout history, communities have been able to work out shared management
of natural resources. Also, The nature of a community means that
we and our neighbors have realized that if we over cultivate the limited and shared pasture
land, it will be ruined. Through discussion with one another we’ve
come up with a system whereby all people in the community graze only the amount they need,
which ensures that there will be enough for other (and future) farmers. What’s cool is that these rules aren’t
coming from the outside, but are rather enhanced from inside the community. The data shows that companies with shared
employee ownership or communities like ours, do better! No overgrazing. No selfishness. No tragedy. While the commons may seem reasonable but
impossible in today’s world, the commons exist successfully all over the world. We can look at the Alaska Permanent Oil Fund,
which, based on the rationale that the oil fields underneath Alaska are the property
of the residents, has for 40 years divided oil revenues between the state’s residents
and a fund for future generations. Commons exist all over the internet too, with
sites such as Wikipedia providing an open platform for information transfer. The Commons has also been valuable in international
development efforts in communities previously devastated by colonialism and free market
capitalism. These commons, however, continue to face strong
opposition from market economists looking to monetize or regulate them. These opponents cite neoclassical economic
thought like Garret Hardin’s tragedy of the commons, which itself was largely built
on the theory of the rational economic man, coined by famed old white dude, J.S. Mill in the mid 19th century. Mill’s belief, was that economics treats
“the whole of man’s nature as… concerned with him solely as a being who desires to
possess wealth and who is capable of judging the comparative efficacy of means for obtaining
that end.” By the early 20th century, this line of thinking
evolved into the full fledged theory that the rational man will act independently and
will do anything to fulfill his insatiable wants. But Elinor Ostrom, the badass she was, won
a Nobel Prize in 2009 for disproving Hardin’s theory of the tragedy of the commons! Ostrom’s work also deconstructed the theory
of the rational economic man, showing that thinking as community and for the future can
and does lead to more efficient outcomes. It seems as though The biggest myth is in
fact Hardin’s “tragedy of the commons”. Why did it take us until 2017 to learn this
but we were taught Hardin in high school! Why has it been allowed to persist despite
facts and a history that disprove it.

4 thoughts on “The Myth of the Tragedy of the Commons

  1. Compare a rental car to privately owned – compare shared rental accommodation with multiple people to a single home owners – compare a public toilet to your own.
    “When everybody owns something, nobody owns it, and nobody has a direct interest in maintaining or improving its condition. That is why buildings in the Soviet Union—like public housing in the United States—look decrepit within a year or two of their construction.” –Milton Friedman

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