Tragedy of the Commons after 50 Years
22 Pages Posted: 19 Sep 2019
Date Written: September 11, 2019
Garrett Hardin’s “The Tragedy of the Commons” (1968) has been incredibly influential generally and within economics, and it remains important despite some historical and conceptual flaws. Hardin focused on the stress population growth inevitably placed on environmental resources. Unconstrained consumption of a shared resource — a pasture, a highway, a server — by individuals acting in rational pursuit of their self-interest can lead to congestion and worse, rapid depreciation, depletion, and even destruction of the resources. Our societies face similar problems, not only with respect to environmental resources but also with infrastructures, knowledge, and many other shared resources. In this Retrospective, we examine how the tragedy of the commons has fared within the economics literature and its relevance for economic and public policies today. We revisit the original piece to explain Hardin’s purpose and conceptual approach. We expose two conceptual mistakes he made, that of conflating resource with governance and conflating open access with commons. This critical discussion leads us to the work of Elinor Ostrom, the recent Nobel Prize in Economics Laureate, who spent her life working on commons. Finally, we discuss a few modern examples of commons governance of shared resources.
Keywords: Garrett Hardin, Tragedy of the Commons, Commons, Common Pool Resources, Vincent Ostrom, Elinor Ostrom, Open Access, Infrastructures
JEL Classification: B20, B21, B31, H41, H54
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation