Tragically Difficult: The Obstacles to Governing the Commons

56 Pages Posted: 17 Jul 2000

Date Written: January 2000


Garrett Hardin's famous article, "The Tragedy of the Commons," recognized the overuse that occurs when resources are freely available to everyone in common. This essay examines why it has often proven so difficult to solve commons dilemmas through regulation, privatization, and other measures. Using fishing, groundwater extraction, and global warming as examples, the essay suggests that stakeholders find it particularly difficult to agree on solutions, even where a universally imposed solution would be in most stakeholders' interests, because people are reticent to accept current losses to avoid future risks, the dilemmas are characterized by significant scientific and social uncertainty, and users heavily discount the probability and cost of future losses. Turning to potential ways around these obstacles, the essay discusses why commons dilemmas cannot be solved purely through legal coercion or changes in environmental attitude. The essay suggests a variety of ways to improve the chances of convincing resource users that there is a problem that must be addressed and then getting them to agree both on a solution and how to allocate the burden of that solution.

JEL Classification: K11, K32

Suggested Citation

Thompson, Barton H., Tragically Difficult: The Obstacles to Governing the Commons (January 2000). Available at SSRN: or

Barton H. Thompson (Contact Author)

Stanford Law School ( email )

559 Nathan Abbott Way
Stanford, CA 94305-8610
United States
650-723-2518 (Phone)
650-725-8509 (Fax)

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