The Tragedy of the Commons Revisited: Politics vs. Private Property

The Tragedy of the Commons Revisited: Politics vs. Private Property

October 01, 1996

Full Document Available as PDF

Executive Summary


One of the most powerful metaphors of the environmental problem is Garrett Hardin’s 1968 article, "The Tragedy of the Commons." The tragedy metaphor claims to show that many environmental problems are caused by a system of open access to commonly owned resources. Hardin summarized conventional wisdom about common property as follows: "Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society which believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all." Hardin’s article became one of the most cited environmental articles ever published and his call for "mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon" is the intellectual justification for nearly three decades of environmental legislation in the United States.

As that legislation developed, ideology and politics combined to select a narrow set of tools for managing the environment, primarily prohibition and command-and-control regulations. But these policy tools do not address underlying causes of environmental problems, ignore some fundamental lessons of the "Tragedy of the Commons" and place impossible demands on the political process.

To illustrate the management challenges faced by those who wish to avoid the tragedy of the commons, we extend Hardin’s village metaphor by considering the two different forms of social arrangements he suggested as possible solutions to the problem; political management vs. private property. In our extension, political management requires that the village establish a management body -- the Pasture Protection Agency (PPA) and it’s head the PPA Administrator. The PPA, of course, is directly analogous to our own environmental protection and resource management agencies. It is intended to show the difficulties and shortcomings of political management.

The private property method divides the commons into plots, deeding a plot to each family, and enforces these rights through fencing the plots and branding the cows. We also look at the common law as a powerful tool for protecting privately owned resources from the tragedy of the commons.

The pros and cons of each arrangement are evaluated for a series of management issues, including enforcement, risk management, information costs, cost-benefit calculus, site-specific management, flexibility, incentives, innovation, time frames, priorities, and transaction costs. Our conclusion is that private management through clearly defined property rights is superior to political management on every point. We can improve resource management greatly by relying more on property rights and market forces and less on political management.