Digging Deeper into Hardin's Pasture: The Complex Institutional Structure of 'The Tragedy of the Commons'

Forthcoming in the Journal of Institutional Economics

14 Pages Posted: 29 Nov 2013 Last revised: 13 Feb 2014

Daniel H. Cole

Indiana University Maurer School of Law; Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs; Indiana University Bloomington - Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis

Graham Epstein

Indiana University Bloomington - Department of Political Science

Michael D. McGinnis

Indiana University Bloomington - Department of Political Science; Indiana University Bloomington - School of Public & Environmental Affairs (SPEA)

Date Written: November 28, 2013

Abstract

The institutional and ecological structure of Hardin’s “tragedy of the commons” appears deceptively simple: the open-access pasture eventually will be overexploited and degraded unless (i) it is privatized, (ii) the government regulates access and use, or (iii) the users themselves impose a common-property regime to regulate their own access and use. In this paper, we argue that the institutional structure of the “Herder Problem” (as it is known to game theorists) is far more complicated than it is usually portrayed. Specifically, it is not just about the pasture. It is equally about the grass that grows on the pasture and the cattle that consume the grass. Even Elinor Ostrom — a scholar known for embracing complexity — presented an overly simplistic portrayal of Hardin’s open-access pasture when she described its governance system as a null set of institutions. A more careful assessment of the situation, employing Ostrom’s Social-Ecological System (SES) framework, broadens the focus from the res communes omnium pasture to incorporate the res nullius grass that grows upon it and the res private cattle grazing there. The “tragedy” arises from the combination and interactions of the resources and their governing institutions, not just from the absence of property in the pasture. If the grass was not subject to appropriation, the cattle were not privately owned, or if property- and contract-enforcement institutions supporting market exchange were absent, the “tragedy of the commons” probably would not arise regardless of the pasture’s open-access status.

Keywords: common-pool resources, institutions, social-ecological systems, property

JEL Classification: C7, D1, D23, D62, D64, D7, K00, K11, K32, N5, O13, P16, Q15, Q2, R14

Suggested Citation

Cole, Daniel H. and Epstein, Graham and McGinnis, Michael D., Digging Deeper into Hardin's Pasture: The Complex Institutional Structure of 'The Tragedy of the Commons' (November 28, 2013). Forthcoming in the Journal of Institutional Economics. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2361177 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2361177

Daniel H. Cole (Contact Author)

Indiana University Maurer School of Law ( email )

211 S. Indiana Avenue
Bloomington, IN 47405
United States

Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs ( email )

1315 East Tenth Street
Bloomington, IN 47405
United States

Indiana University Bloomington - Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis ( email )

Indiana University Bloomington
Bloomington, IN
United States
(812) 855-4421 (Phone)

Graham Epstein

Indiana University Bloomington - Department of Political Science ( email )

Bloomington, IN
United States

Michael D. McGinnis

Indiana University Bloomington - Department of Political Science ( email )

Bloomington, IN
United States

Indiana University Bloomington - School of Public & Environmental Affairs (SPEA) ( email )

1315 East Tenth Street
Bloomington, IN 47405
United States

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