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Tragically Difficult: The Obstacles to Governing the Commons

Barton H. Thompson Jr.

Stanford Law School

January 2000

Stanford Law and Economics Olin Working Paper No. 187

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.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 56

JEL Classification: K11, K32

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Date posted: July 17, 2000  

Suggested Citation

Thompson, Barton H., Tragically Difficult: The Obstacles to Governing the Commons (January 2000). Stanford Law and Economics Olin Working Paper No. 187. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=236031 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.236031

Contact Information

Barton H. Thompson Jr. (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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