Tragedy of the Commons

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Main thesis = Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all. [1]

Note the author's self-critique:

"The dilemma, as Hardin reassessed 30 years after his original essay, is not that the atmosphere is a commons, but that it is an unmanaged commons, an open-access regime. “To judge from the critical literature,” he wrote in the May 1, 1998 issue of Science, “the weightiest mistake in my synthesizing paper was the omission of the modifying adjective ‘unmanaged’.” [2]


Garreth Harding, in a classic and often quoted essay, had argued that the Commons inevitably leads to the abuse of common resources. The essay is located at

The author himself "has criticized misinterpretations of his work with the lament that "The title of my 1968 paper should have been The Tragedy of the Unmanaged Commons. (cited here [3])

Please also read this Refutation of the Tragedy of the Commons, by Ian Angus.


"The tragedy of the commons is a type of social trap that involves a conflict over resources between individual interests and the common good. The term derives originally from a parable published by William Forster Lloyd in his 1833 book on population. It was then popularized and extended by Garrett Hardin in his 1968 Science essay "The Tragedy of the Commons".[1] However, the theory itself is as old as Aristotle who said: "That which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it"." (



"Hardin explains his “Tragedy of the Commons in the following way. “Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons.

“As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. The rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. 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.

“The individual benefits as an individual from his ability to deny the truth even though society as a whole, of which he is a part, suffers. Education can counteract the natural tendency to do the wrong thing, but the inexorable succession of generations requires that the basis for this knowledge be constantly refreshed.

In 1968 Hardin was able to articulate the following example, one that we face today. Our “National Parks present another instance of the working out of the tragedy of the commons. At present, they are open to all, without limit” but “the parks themselves are limited in extent whereas population seems to grow without limit. The values that visitors seek in the parks are steadily eroded. Plainly, we must soon cease to treat the parks as commons or they will be of no value to anyone.” (


"The Tragedy of the Commons is a leading social science paradigm largely based on a Garret Hardin's 1968 Science article by that name. Hardin postulates a commons pasture that is open to all and examines the position of a commons herdsman who is deciding whether to add an animal to his herd.

Hardin applies the following utility model:

  • if the herdsman adds the animal, he will gain the full benefit from the sale of this animal (+1)
  • while there will be a cost to the commons due to additional overgrazing (-1), the effects of overgrazing by this additional animal are shared by all of the herdsmen (n) and this herdsman will only bear a fraction of that cost (-1 / n)
  • after calculating the net utilities, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course is to add the animal

As a result, the herdsman adds the animal and then continues to add animals. In parallel, the same conclusion is reached and the same course of action is taken by every other herdsman that is sharing the commons pasture. In the words of Hardin: "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." (


See also the in-depth discussion in The Tragedy of the “Tragedy of the Commons”. By Achim Lerch. [4]

The Main Mistakes of Hardin's Fable

John Tierney:

"His fable about a common pasture that is ruined by overgrazing became one of the most-quoted articles ever published by that journal, and it served as a fundamental rationale for the expansion of national and international regulation of the environment. His fable was a useful illustration of a genuine public-policy problem — how do you manage a resource that doesn’t belong to anyone? — but there were a couple of big problems with the essay and its application.

First, Dr. Hardin himself misapplied the fable. Declaring that “overpopulation” was a tragedy of the commons, he warned that “freedom to breed will bring ruin to all.” He and others advocated a “lifeboat ethic” of denying food aid, even during emergencies, to poor countries with rapidly growing populations. But “overpopulation” was not even a theoretical example of the tragedy of the commons. Parents are not like the cattle owners who profit individually by adding cows to the pasture (while collectively destroying it). Parents, unlike the cattle owners, have to pay to feed and house and educate their children, and the high economic costs of children are one reason that birth rates have declined around the world — without any of the coercion discussed by Dr. Hardin and some other ecologists (like Paul Ehrlich).

The second problem arising from Dr. Hardin’s fable was the presumption that a commons needed to be regulated by national and international agencies. Dr. Hardin didn’t explicitly make that generalization in the essay — he noted that the tragedy could be avoided either by regulating the commons or by converting it to private property — but others in the environmental movement essentially drew that conclusion. Although some greens talked about the virtue of “acting locally,” major environmental groups lobbied in Washington for expanded federal authority, and they urged the rest of the world to follow the American and European example by creating national rules governing commons like forests and fisheries.

But too often those commons ended up in worse shape once they were put under the control of distant bureaucrats who lacked the expertise or the incentives to do the job properly. Dr. Hardin and his disciples had failed to appreciate how often the tragedy of the commons had been averted thanks to ingenious local institutions and customs. Dr. Ostrom won the Nobel for her work analyzing those local institutions. In an interview at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, Dr. Ostrom discussed the damage that had been done by those who had supplanted the local institutions." (

Hardin's Confusions: On the Difference between Common Pool Resources and Common Property Regimes

George Caffentzis in a presentation on the Neo-Hardinians scholars of the Commons:

"Scholars in the neo-Hardinian tendency have carried on many important empirical studies of common property systems across the planet as well as have made a number of important distinctions in the study of common property. This is not the place to assess their empirical studies (cf. the extensive bibliography on Private and Common Property Rights in (Ostrom 2000: 352-379) and the Digital Library on the Commons mentioned above), but their most important theoretical distinctions are worth reviewing, since some can be useful to the anti-capitalist commonist movement.

Of course, the primary one is between common property and open access regimes, since the confusion between them is the basis of Hardin's deduction of the tragedy of the common. Common property regimes are "where the members of a clearly demarcated group have a legal right to exclude nonmembers of that group from using a resource. Open access regimes (res nullius)-including the classic cases of the open seas and the atmosphere-have long been considered in legal doctrine as involving no limits on who is authorized to use a resource" (Ostrom 2000: 335-336). On the basis of this distinction, common property and open access regimes are mutually exclusive and anyone who had as their political ideal the creation of an open access regime would not be a supporter of the commons.

The second important distinction is between a common-pool resource (which is a thing or stuff) and a common property regime (which is a set of social relations). A common-pool resource is such that (a) "it is costly to exclude individuals from using the good either through physical barriers or legal instruments and (b) the benefits consumed by one individual subtract from the benefits available to others" (Ostrom 2000: 337). Because of its two defining characteristics, a common-pool resource is subject to problems of congestion, overuse and potential destruction. Access to, withdrawal from, management and ownership of such a resource can be in the form of a common property regime, but it need not be. "Examples exist of both successful and unsuccessful efforts to govern and manage common-pool resources by governments, communal groups, cooperatives, voluntary associations, and private individuals or firms" (Ostrom 2000: 338). Much of the work of the neo-Hardinians has been to study what attributes of common-pool resources that "are conducive to the use of communal proprietorship or ownership" and what attributes of common-pool resources that "are conducive to individual rights to withdrawal, management, exclusion and alienation" (Ostrom 2000: 332).

The neo-Hardinians, however, seem to be less interested in the fact that not all common property regimes involve common-pool resources. On the contrary, when we examine the history of common property regimes, we must conclude that many have been based on non-common-pool resources. For example, money income, personal belongings, literary texts, and even children have been communalized. Thus the 15th century Taborites' first act of forming their community was to dump all their personal belongings in large open chests and begin their communal relations on an even footing (Federici 2004: 54). On the basis of the history of common property regimes it is difficult to decide what types of goods are "conducive" to private property and what kinds of goods are "conducive" to common property.

The third important distinction is between common-pool resources (e.g., a fishery, a river) and public goods (e.g., knowledge of a physical law, living in a just and peaceful society). They share one characteristic, i.e., it is difficult to exclude people living within the scope of these resources or goods from their enjoyment. But they also differ in another characteristic, for a common-pool resource like a fishery is reduced when something of value like a particular fish is withdrawn from it while a public good like knowledge of the Second Law of Thermodynamics is not diminished when still another person uses it to construct a new engine." (

Flaming as a Tragedy of the Commons

Clay Shirky: "Flaming is one of a class of economic problems known as The Tragedy of the Commons. Briefly stated, the tragedy of the commons occurs when a group holds a resource, but each of the individual members has an incentive to overuse it. (The original essay used the illustration of shepherds with common pasture. The group as a whole has an incentive to maintain the long-term viability of the commons, but with each individual having an incentive to overgraze, to maximize the value they can extract from the communal resource.) In the case of mailing lists (and, again, other shared conversational spaces), the commonly held resource is communal attention. The group as a whole has an incentive to keep the signal-to-noise ratio low and the conversation informative, even when contentious. Individual users, though, have an incentive to maximize expression of their point of view, as well as maximizing the amount of communal attention they receive. It is a deep curiosity of the human condition that people often find negative attention more satisfying than inattention, and the larger the group, the likelier someone is to act out to get that sort of attention." (

More by Shirky on the group 'as its own worst enemy', at; the highly recommended Shirky archive is at

The Tragedy of the Anti-Commons

Steve Webber on the "the tragedy of the anti-commons." Let's say I'm a researcher working at a small biotech firm here in the Bay Area. And I think there's something interesting I would like to do with a particular molecule and its interaction with a particular gene. Much of this stuff is now patented, and there are so many competing patent claims on so many different parts of the things I would need to work on, that the cost of actually figuring out what permissions I need are astronomical. So lots of small companies simply can't work on it.

They call it the tragedy of the anti-commons in the sense that in order to work on this, they've got to get a permission to use this molecule and a license to play with this gene. That's just too expensive, so they walk away from it. I don't have a quantitative model that can describe for you how much wasted effort or dead weight results from this problem. But I can tell you, there's a lot of anecdotal evidence. There are companies that patent gene sequences, knowing full well that these patents would never be upheld in court, because they haven't added any value. They also know full well that if a pharmaceutical company decides it wants to do something with that gene, it's more likely just to pay the company $150,000 or $200,000, rather than spend a year or 18 months fighting the patent in court. It's kind of tragic."

See the related entries on:

  1. Tragedy of the Anti-Commons
  2. Tragedy of the Non-Commons

There is no Tragedy of the Commons or Free Riding online!

Timothy B. Lee:

"The idea of "free riding" is based on a couple of key 20th-century assumptions that just don't apply to the online world. The first assumption is that the production of content is a net cost that must either be borne by the producer or compensated by consumers. This is obviously true for some categories of content—no one has yet figured out how to peer-produce Hollywood-quality motion pictures, for example—but it's far from universal. Moreover, the real world abounds in counterexamples. No one loses sleep over the fact that people "free ride" off of watching company softball games, community orchestras, or amateur poetry readings. To the contrary, it's understood that the vast majority of musicians, poets, and athletes find these activities intrinsically enjoyable, and they're grateful to have an audience "free ride" off of their effort.

The same principle applies to Wikipedia. Participating in Wikipedia is a net positive experience for both readers and editors. We don't need to "solve" the free rider problem because there are more than enough people out there for whom the act of contributing is its own reward.

The second problem with the "free riding" frame is that it fails to appreciate that the sheer scale of the Internet changes the nature of collective action problems. With a traditional meatspace institution like a church, business or intramural sports league, it's essential that most participants "give back" in order for the collective effort to succeed. The concept of "free riding" emphasizes the fact that traditional offline institutions expect and require reciprocation from the majority of their members for their continued existence. A church in which only, say, one percent of members contributed financially wouldn't last long. Neither would an airline in which only one percent of the customers paid for their tickets.

On Wikipedia—and a lot of other online content-creation efforts—the ratio of contributors to users just doesn't matter. Because the marginal cost of copying and distributing content is very close to zero, institutions can get along just fine with arbitrarily high "free riding" rates. All that matters is whether the absolute number of contributors is adequate. And because some fraction of new users will always become contributors, an influx of additional "free riders" is almost always a good thing.

Talking about peer production as solving a "free-rider problem," then, gets things completely backwards. The biggest danger collaborative online projects face is not "free riding" but obscurity. A tiny free software project in which every user contributes code is in a much worse position than a massively popular software project like Firefox in which 99.9 percent of users "free ride." Obviously, every project would like to have more of its users become contributors. But the far more important objective for an online collaborative effort to is grow the total size of the user community. New "free riders" are better than nothing." (


Knowledge is the only resource that grows by use. It cannot be depleted by use. This is the most simple refutation of the Tragedy of the Commons when applied to knowledge in general and to digital data specifically. All types of intellectual goods (publications, algorithms, science, software, all data in general) can only prosper and grow when they are put to use by as many people and in as many contexts as possible. An idea has to spread from one mind to another to eventually be able to manifest in humanity's reality as a material good, concept or model. All else is nothing but a potentiality.

More Information

  1. The Wikipedia article is at
  2. Essay by Eleanor Ostrom: Coping with Tragedies of the Commons
  3. Refutation of the Tragedy of the Commons; The Non-Tragedy of the Commons
  4. Tragedy of the Anti-Commons
  5. Carpenter, Stanley R. 2000. "Sustainability and Common-Pool Resources: Alternatives to Tragedy." Society for Philosophy and Technology 3(4).
  6. c2 wiki, with many comments: Tragedy of the Commons