The Tragedy of the Commons – Hardin (1968)

Few scholarly discussions of commons begin without first recognising The Tragedy of the Commons – Garrett Hardin (1968).

Unfortunately, the piece is often cited as holding the wrong solutions to our social dilemmas. In reality, it was revolutionary and groundbreaking. It is one of the most cited and influential works in all of the social sciences. While there are a number of widespread criticisms, the work began a research agenda that still continues today. Here, I will explain why so many important research arms can be traced back to a short six page article. And, although Hardin did not establish design rules as in Ostrom (1990), he eluded to many of them.

Firstly, it is important to note that Hardin lived in a world where the dominant views were Adam Smith: “But he (Adam Smith) contributed to a dominant tendency of thought that has ever since interfered with positive action based on rational analysis, namely, the tendency to assume that decisions reached individually will, in fact, be the best decisions for an entire society.” (p1244). While Hardin eventually derived conclusions from Smithian-rational individuals, he was also one of the first to question the assumption. Questioning this assumption would bring various new areas of economics, including behavioral economics.

Hardin, a biologist, famously told a story of an open pasture. This commons, where herdsmen could appropriate from the pasture as they please, faced a social dilemma (Hardin referred to these as “no technical solution problems”, p1243). Naturally, from the assumption of “each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons” Hardin came to a conclusion: “Ruin is the destination to 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.” (p1244).

Hardin suggested two prescriptions to this tragedy of the commons, privatisation or public regulation: “What shall we do? We have several options. We might sell them off as private property. We might keep them as public property, but allocate the right to enter them.” (p1245). These still remain dominant reactions to common pool resources.

“The laws of our society follow the pattern of ancient ethics, and therefore are poorly suited to governing a complex, crowded, changeable world” (p1245). This indicates Hardin’s understanding of the importance of local knowledge (Hayek, 1945), as well as the fact the world is undeniably complex and changing (a welcome relief from neoclassical beliefs). This is Ostrom (1990) design principle 2 (congruence between appropriation and provision rules and local conditions). 

“The great challenge facing us now is to invent the corrective feedbacks that are needed to keep custodians honest” (p1246). This is both the need for governance, and the more recent mechanism design. This is Ostrom (1990) design principle 4 (monitoring) and design principle 5 (graduated sanctions). 

“The only kind of coercion I recommend is mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon by the majority of the people affected” (p1247). This is Ostrom (1990) design principle 3 (collective-choice arrangements  where most individuals affected by the operational rules can participate in modifying the operational rules).

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