Econ-Utopia: The (Sometimes) Triumph of the Commons

By Jonathan Elsberg, CPE Staff Economist

One of the more attention-grabbing ideas that has crossed academic disciplinary boundaries, as well as entered into everyday language, is the notion of the “tragedy of the commons.” Made most famous by late Professor of Human Ecology Garrett Hardin in an essay by that name, the idea is not too complicated, very powerful–and rather alarming.

The tragedy describes a situation in which there is public access to a resource. It is to the advantage of each individual to use a little bit extra of the resource, but when all individuals do this simultaneously, the resource is ruined for everyone. Dozens of references to the “tragedy” can be found in newspapers in just the last year, dealing with issues such as depleted fisheries, email spam, risky growth in hedge-fund investing, and worker migration and associated destruction of local communities.

While resources available “in common” sometimes have been tragically exploited, reality is (happily) more complicated, and tragedy is not destiny. One aspect sometimes overlooked by pessimistic analysts is that there are different kinds of common property resources. Some resources are totally open to any and all users, and are properly called “open access” rather than “commons”. These are the ones that are most likely to suffer tragic overuse. The earth’s atmosphere, and its ability to absorb global warming pollution, is one example.

Often, the “cure” recommended for these tragic commons is either strict government control or the conversion of the resource into pure private property. Under the ruling ideology of our times, it is the latter that gets the most promotion.

However, many resources are held in common by a group which is able to sustainably use the resource without resorting to the use of strict private property. The members of the group, be it a local community, professional organization, or national society, control and share access to the resource, yet establish and follow rules of behavior that override greedy urges and keep individual’s use of the resource to an acceptable level. These successful cases of working social rules and norms are arguments against the call for knee-jerk privatization of common properties, or for total government control.

Some examples include the sharing of fishing zones in Alanya, Turkey, maintenance of acequia irrigation systems around New Mexico, U.S.A., and the Ozone Transport Commission NOx Budget established among eight northeastern U.S. states to reduce smog-related air pollution.

These are important lessons, because some potentially tragic commons cannot be fully privatized or put entirely into the hands of the government. For example, avoiding global warming will require extensive international cooperation (there is disagreement on whether this cooperation can be built from the ground up, or must be imposed by a powerful, central world power). Not only will the citizens and businesses of each country have to take responsibility for their CO2 emissions, but each government will have to help establish a working institutional framework for such responsibility within its borders. However, each government, business and individual faces the tragic temptation – allow all the others to control their CO2, while we fake compliance and reap the economic advantages.

No international treaty will hold if the signers don’t want to follow it. Only through combined dedication to the well-being of the whole along with creative, yet feasible, new institutions to guard against cheating will the individual community members make triumphant rather than tragic choices. It is through the study of past common property success and failures that we can learn to succeed more often.


Herman Daly, “Logic that leads to a plundered world,” The Guardian (London, England), September 1, 2003, pg. 25.,2763,1033054,00.html

Nives Dolšak and Elinor Ostrom, eds., The Commons in the New Millennium: Challenges and Adaptations, MIT Press, 2003. (I especially recommend the chapter by Einar Eythórsson on Icelandic fisheries. It is an excellent analysis of a privatization scheme with mixed positive and negative results.)

Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science, Vol. 162, No. 3859, Issue of 13 Dec 1968, pp. 1243-1248. (Also available online at

Tor Hundloe and Daryl McPhee, “No reason why we can’t have our fishcake and eat it,” Courier Mail (Queensland, Australia), August 25, 2003, pg. 11.

Barney Jopson, “Don’t turn to hedge funds when depressed,” Financial Times (London, England), March 31, 2003, pg. 25.

Las Vegas (New Mexico) Citizens’ Committee for Historic Preservation, “Historic Acequias of Las Vegas, New Mexico” web-brochure.

Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Jonathan Turley, “Uncle Sam and spam,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, (Wisconsin, USA), April 28, 2003, pg. 13A.

(c) 2003 Center for Popular Economics

Econ-Atrocities are a periodic publication of the Center for Popular Economics. They are the work of their authors and reflect their author’s opinions and analyses. CPE does not necessarily endorse any particular idea expressed in these articles.