Fallacy of the Commons

by John Q on May 6, 2004

Like Jon Mandle, I was repulsed by Garrett Hardin’s 1974 article Lifeboat Ethics: The Case Against Helping the Poor. The idea that large sections of humanity were doomed and should be abandoned forthwith was quite popular at the time. The Paddock brothers prominently advocated a policy of “triage”, cutting off aid immediately to countries like India which were, they argued, doomed to starvation in any case. Judging by this 1996 interview, Hardin (who died last year) didn’t change his views much over time.

Having reacted against this piece by Hardin, I was glad to discover that his more famous contribution to the environment debate, the Tragedy of the Commons was, in historical terms, a load of tripe.

The most famous paragraph in Hardin’s piece is his summary of an 1833 article by a British clergyman, William Lloyd

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. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability be comes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.

I vividly remember Partha Dasgupta saying (I quote from memory),

There can be few passages in the literature on the environment so brief and well-known that contain as many errors as this one

. He has a more measured statement of the case here.

Prior to hearing this, I’d written a Masters thesis in which, among other things, I’d trawled through the historical literature on how common property systems actually worked, showing that they were never “open to all”, and that all members of the group of common owners had tightly-specifed (and, in a feudal system, highly unequal) rights[1]. As soon as grazing pressure built up, common grazing land was “stinted” (numbers of cattle were limited) a practice that was almost universal by the late Middle Ages. Common property systems were neither the anarchy pictured by Hardin nor the utopia imagined by some romantic socialists (the Diggers were a rare example of a group who tried to put a utopian vision of common property into practice).

One point I was particularly pleased with in my thesis was that the observation that Lloyd could only write what he did in 1833 because, by that time, nearly all actual commons had been destroyed by enclosure. On the other hand, of course, the events were too recent for Lloyd to have access to the kind of historical work I found in my own research. No such excuse can be made for Hardin.

fn1. I wasn’t, of course, the first to do this. A good analysis, from a Chicago-school viewpoint, is Carl J. Dahlman, The Open Field System and Beyond: A Property Rights Analysis of an Economic Institution (Cambridge, 1980)



asg 05.06.04 at 12:45 pm

In the article by Dasgupta you link, Dasgupta writes:

“But is [the commons metaphor] trustworthy?

The answer depends on how contained the commons happen to be geographically. Hardin’s parable is apt for resources such as the atmosphere, the open seas, and urban pollution; but, as we will see in the next section, it is misleading for geographically-localised common-property resources, such as ponds, threshing grounds and, ironically, grazing fields.”

This passage suggests that Dasgupta, at least, does not share your view that Hardin’s application of an idealized metaphor about grazing commons to environmental issues is “a load of tripe.” Rather, he feels that Hardin should have chosen an example with a more historical, as opposed to intuitive, basis.


Steve 05.06.04 at 1:39 pm

But the Commons ARE abused and neglected. In your historical example, the commons, once they could no longer support free use, essentially became ‘uncommon’ to avoid the abuse-they weren’t free for all. By analogy, the ocean, the air, everything in the original article can only be commons until there are too many people that want it.
Aristotle noted that things held in common are maintained by noone.
Did you know that in the army, everything (EVERYTHING) is signed for by the end user? A $3 million tank, a $15 million helicopter, are signed for by the user (tank commander, the pilot, etc). He then sub-hand receipts smaller pieces (for instance, tools, machine guns, etc) to members of his crew. Why? Why would a 22 year old kid ‘sign for’ a tank? Even the military knows. Property held in common is abused-tools end up getting ‘lost,’ tanks end up being neglected.



David 05.06.04 at 1:43 pm

Amartya Sen has sensible things to say about other aspects of Hardin’s perspective.



It is troubling to note that there’s a Garrett Hardin Society:


And it’s further troubling to note that Hardin has, in places, defended forced abortions (China/and even in the U.S. if approved by the majority) and infanticide:



nick 05.06.04 at 2:30 pm

This is my problem with Locke, actually: at least, with his analogy of the state of nature to the commons.

That’s to say, the commons of medieval times — which still exists in places such as Oxford’s Port Meadow or Newcastle’s Town Moor — is actually constituted within a highly-controlled and highly patriarchal system of property ownership. And the controls upon use were sustainable because of that system.

I wonder whether Locke ever cared to wonder how Port Meadow functioned. As the Oxford city council site points out, it wasn’t ‘common’ land.


riume 05.06.04 at 2:33 pm

What I like about this is that it shows that in fact collective action is possible to avoid the so called tragedy of the commons. Shades of Korpotkin trumping Hobbes – people in the state of nature might be 6 ft tall and polite if they just tried to be more like wolves – But that doesn’t mean that in a game theoretic sense that there is no potential for the tragedy of the commons – which is what I thought you were saying. The tragedy, along with Rousseau’s parable of the stag hunters and even Gramsci’s parable of the beaver (with just a little monkeywrenching even Gramsci is a rat choicer) are all very important heuristics. Having said all of that, a lot of the social science built on the shoulders of this way of thinking is tripe. The “paradox of voting” could have been the subject of a post like this. You lay out all the argfuements about why its irrational to vote, but look, there are voters. Its a paradox as opposed to a fundamental failure of theory. The thought that the perstroika movement in political science might start to move this ball forward is the only reason I’m still interested…


David Sucher 05.06.04 at 2:42 pm

Hardin’s history may well be wrong and I appreciate the insights you offer. But his use of the “commons”metaphor still seems quite valid — your point that it took regulation such as “stinging” to make it work — only reinforces the larger point of his thesis that a commons needs regulation, either by public or private, to make it work. No?


David Sucher 05.06.04 at 3:03 pm

Of course I should have written “stinting” though “stinging” has a punnish quality.


Henry 05.06.04 at 3:08 pm

Lin Ostrom has a really lovely book, _Governing the Commons_ that makes the same point on the basis of comparative study of thousands of common property systems across the world. She shows that they work quite well in governing resource use across a wide variety of settings (although she maybe underplays a bit the extent to which they may instantiate unequal power relations).


DJW 05.06.04 at 3:16 pm

A similar point is made by Susan Buck in her 1985 Environmental Ethics article, “No Tragedy of the Commons”. Reprinted in the popular Global Environmental Politics anthology, Green Planet Blues. Suffice it to say that for people paying attention, it’s clear that Hardin screws up his his

I think ASG is correct though, this metaphor does have some value in some contemporary contexts. It never really captures the essence of any system of common property, but it certainly tells an important part of the story.


DJW 05.06.04 at 3:18 pm

Olstrom, too, of course. I’d forgotten about that. Best part of that book, IMO.


Will Wilkinson 05.06.04 at 3:27 pm

Riume, Where would one locate Gramsci’s “parable of the beaver”?


asg 05.06.04 at 3:35 pm

Will W. — I was curious about that too, but I was able to find it pretty easily by googling “gramsci beaver”. I confess its relevance to the topic at hand was not clear to me, though.


Dan Hardie 05.06.04 at 6:54 pm

There are some more readings on this, all tending to utterly discredit Hardin’s ‘thesis’, in Matt Ridley’s ‘The Origins of Virtue’. Horrifies me to think that I was taught ‘the tragedy of the commons’ more or less uncritically in my first year at Oxford. Ridley’s book is worth reading for its own sake, btw, although the last couple of chapters are some of the dumbest sub-Hayek tripe imaginable.


Glen 05.06.04 at 7:50 pm

I don’t get it. Reading over the essay, I see two things:

1. Yes, there’s a lot of tripe related to overpopulation. Hardin was quite the Malthusian. Too bad he never made a bet with Julian Simon.

2. But on the other hand, his analysis of the commons problems makes perfect sense. He does *not* claim (at least nowhere that I could find in the essay) that his theory described the actual institutional structure of common pastures in England. Rather, he describes a *hypothetical* situation in which a pasture is “open to all.” If the common pastures of England were not in fact “open to all,” but instead were heavily regulated, then the conditions for his theory don’t apply. When Hardin needs empirical examples, he does not rely on English pastures; he relies on excellent modern-day examples like air pollution and over-fishing of the oceans.


Another Damned Medievalist agrees in part with EAR Brown 05.06.04 at 8:26 pm

what in the name of all that’s holy has the commons to do with the so-called feudal system?

Manorial, maybe. Feudal, no. System — a pox on the tyranny of a construct.


robbo 05.07.04 at 12:05 am

Right ASG, Steve, Glen, et al. Quiggin’s claim to have participated in discrediting Hardin is, quite simply, pathetic. Since the pasture is hypothetical Hardin can’t have portrayed it inaccurately in a historical sense. Sure, those in the know about how pastures are typically regulated can chuckle at the notion of Hardin’s unregulated pasture, but as a strict metaphor the pasture nicely illustrates the basic problems encountered in dividing and exploiting any common-property resource.


John Quiggin 05.07.04 at 1:33 am

I suggest readers go back to the piece by Lloyd, cited by Hardin, which certainly does claim to be a description of the actual open field system and not some hypothetical case. And if the hypothetical illustration has no real-world counterpart, doesn’t this suggest that the analogy is likely to miss out on key features of the problem? The extensive work of Ostrom and others has shown that if you want to understand common property and open access resources, you should examine actual institutions rather than spurious accounts of hypothetical cases.

Conflation of common property with open access, as in Hardin, has repeatedly let to mistaken policy prescriptions in developing countries where actual common property institutions have been abolished (sometimes nationalised, sometimes privatised) on the basis of the assumption that they must lead to resource degradation. In quite a few instances, the new institutions have produced rapid resource degradation.


robbo 05.07.04 at 4:54 pm

I don’t have Lloyd’s 1833 paper, and doubt that I’d be interested enough to read it. But Hardin did not cite an “actual open field system.” He wrote, “Picture a pasture open to all.”

And if the hypothetical illustration has no real-world counterpart, doesn’t this suggest that the analogy is likely to miss out on key features of the problem?

I was taught the TOTC analogy to mean the following: Without effective outside regulation, timber companies can be counted on to destroy the forests; fishing fleets will inevitably deplete important fish stocks; mining companies will destroy rivers and leave gaping scars on the landscape; large industry and car drivers will ruin the air we breathe; etc. In America, I see no indication that these common-property resources would not be totally destroyed in the absence of outside regulation. The fact that shepherds on actual commons work out ways among themselves to keep their flocks alive has not detracted from the potency of the analogy in the cases cited above.

I’ll grant that actually using the TOTC as the literal basis for attempting to regulate grazing in developing countries is a stupid idea. But those particulars don’t turn the analogy, as applied to commonly held resources — like air, water, fish, and forests — into a load of tripe, in my estimation.


John Quiggin 05.07.04 at 9:41 pm

Robbo, there are plenty of examples of successfully-managed common-property fisheries (read Ostrom). And there are important examples of common-property environmental regulation in the contemporary US, most notably homeowners associations. These sometimes work well and sometimes not.

Hardin’s discussion implies that the appropriate solution is always either privatisation (enclosure) or external regulation and this is not correct.


robbo 05.08.04 at 12:29 am

John, now that we’re down toward the level of specifics, I’ll happily agree that TOTC does not apply to every case of protecting commonly held resources. Maybe there are plenty of exceptions. I’m pretty familiar with land use issues in southern California, specifically Orange County. It’s clear to me that the major land-protection actions of the past 30 years were based on (1) the federal Endangered Species Act, still one of the few environmental protection laws with enough teeth to scare a major developer, and/or (2) strong and organized public pressure — i.e. pressure from outside the group of people who stood to gain financially from destroying the resource — to preserve places like Upper Newport Bay, which was very nearly turned into a yacht harbor in the 1970s. And as one who remembers the literally choking smog of the 1970s and 1980s, I’m very pleased that we have a jack-booted Air Quality Management District that has done such a great job of letting me breathe. I’m also glad that the State cracked down on smoking in bars and restaurants. Again, these highly beneficial protections of public resources were simply not happening on their own, as the result of market forces or far-sighted self-regulation by those who stood to profit more from abusing the commons.

And allowing that certain fisheries that are well-managed, the overall state of the world’s fisheries is widely believed to be poor:


Sorry, count me among the tiny minority of Americans who proudly stand up for strong government regulation of commonly held resources. Markets just don’t cut it!


John Quiggin 05.08.04 at 2:35 am

Robbo, I’m certainly not advocating naive reliance on markets (though they have their place). In fact, one of the reasons I reacted against Hardin was that, at least for part of his career, he was an advocate of free-market environmentalism, symbolised by enclosure as a solution to the putative tragedy of the commons.

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