In December 1968 Science magazine published a paper by Garrett Hardin entitled “The Tragedy of the Commons”… [it] became one of the most cited academic papers ever published and its title a catch phrase. It has framed the debate about common property for the last 30 years…
Hardin’s basic argument was that common property systems allow individuals to benefit at a cost to the community, and therefore are inherently prone to decay, ecological exhaustion and collapse. Hardin got the idea for his theory from the Oxford economist, the Rev William Forster Lloyd…
– From A short history of enclosure in Britain by Simon Fairley.
Why are the cattle on a common so puny and stunted? Why is the common itself so bareworn and cropped so differently from the adjoining enclosures? If a person puts more cattle into his own field, the amount of the subsistence which they consume is all deducted from that which was at the command of his original stock; and if, before, there was no more than a sufficiency of pasture, he reaps no benefit from the additional cattle, what is gained one way, being lost in another. But if he puts more cattle on a common, the food which they consume forms a deduction which is shared between all the cattle, as well that of others as his own, and only a small part of it is taken from his own cattle.
– Rev William Forster Lloyd, 1833, quoted in A short history of enclosure in Britain by Simon Fairley.
The rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another . . . But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit — in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.
An alternative to the commons need not be perfectly just to be preferable. With real estate and other material goods, the alternative we have chosen is the institution of private property coupled with legal inheritance. Is this system perfectly just? . . . We must admit that our legal system of private property plus inheritance is unjust — but we put up with it because we are not convinced, at the moment, that anyone has invented a better system. The alternative of the commons is too horrifying to contemplate. Injustice is preferable to total ruin.
– From ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ by Garrett Hardin, ‘Science’, 1968, quoted in A short history of enclosure in Britain by Simon Fairley.
Thirty years have passed since Garrett Hardin’s influential article “The Tragedy of the Commons”. At first, many people agreed with Hardin’s metaphor that the users of a commons are caught in an inevitable process that leads to the destruction of the very resource on which they depend. The “rational” user of a commons, Hardin argued, makes demands on a resource until the expected benefits of his or her actions equal the expected costs. Because each user ignores costs imposed on others, individual decisions cumulate to a tragic overuse and the potential destruction of an open-access commons. Hardin’s proposed solution was “either socialism or the privatism of free enterprise”.
Although tragedies have undoubtedly occurred, it is also obvious that for thousands of years people have self-organized to manage common-pool resources, and users often do devise long-term, sustainable institutions for governing these resources. The prediction that resource users are led inevitably to destroy CPRs is based on a model that assumes all individuals are selfish, norm-free, and maximizers of short-run results. This model explains why market institutions facilitate an efficient allocation of private goods and services, and it is strongly supported by empirical data from open, competitive markets in industrial societies. However, predictions based on this model are not supported in field research or in laboratory experiments in which individuals face a public good or CPR problem and are able to communicate, sanction one another, or make new rules. Humans adopt a narrow, self-interested perspective in many settings, but can also use reciprocity to overcome social dilemmas.
– From ‘Revisiting the Commons: Local Lessons, Global Challenges’ by Elinor Ostrom, Joanna Burger, Christopher B. Field, Richard B. Norgaard, and David Policansky, ‘Science’, 1999. The lead author of this article, Elinor Ostrom, was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics in 2009.