Being common is tragic, but the tragedy of the commons is still true

Ostrom's work more than simply disproving Hardin

Three cows image via Shutterstock

Worstall @ the Weekend Something popped up in the comments from BobRocket a couple of weeks back, namely that the Tragedy of the Commons is a myth spread by the landgrabbers, and Elinor Ostrom proved this was wrong. Well, no, not really; not at all in fact.

What Ostrom did show was hugely more interesting than simply disproving Garret Hardin's assertions. So, perhaps it's time to trot through what they were variously saying.

Hardin's original essay is here. He wasn't saying anything particularly new, much of the basic idea can be found in Malthus for example.

However, what he did do is revitalise the concepts, and provide the modern vocabulary for their discussion. He also made a significant mistake in the subject he tried to apply the insights to, something we'll come to.

The essential structure is that when there's some resource which is accessible on Marxian terms (that is, open access to all who want access) then if the demand for that resource exceeds either the supply of it, or its regenerative capacity, then that resource will be exhausted.

We can think up pretty obvious examples of this: a pile of £10m that anyone can take as much as they like from will pretty soon be a pile of zero quid. A commons (say, common grazing land, or as is actually true in many parts of the world currently, the diminishing supply of firewood) where anyone can take as much as they want, will be fine as long as there aren't that many people wanting to take very much.

One buffalo out of millions on the Great Plains makes no difference at all: lots of people wanting buffalo hides to make the belts for the factory energy distribution systems will pretty soon denude said plains of said dumb cows. As it did: for I'm told that that was the main use of those hides.

Hardin then went on to point out that when such demand was greater than the resource could cope with them some restriction or another on access was needed. We could have a private property solution (what he termed a capitalist one) where we would expect the owner to preserve their fortune by exploiting the resource sustainably.

We could also have a government or regulatory solution (he termed this socialist) which would similarly peg use at that sustainable level.

So far he's absolutely correct: and please do note that we're not really talking about “commons” in the sense of the village green and the rights of pannage (feeding the pigs on the green acorns in the forest), grazing or appurtenances consistent with being a villager.

They're used as an example of said tragedy, but they're not actually a good one as Ostrom showed. But the economic structure that Hardin is describing most definitely exists: when demand for a resource rises above what can be managed under an open access system then some form of control over access must be found.

Otherwise, the resource will be exhausted giving us our tragedy.

Hardin's mistake was to apply this to population. In this he was very like the earlier Malthus of course: both were pretty much true in their observations about what had happened before, it's just that they wrote them down at what proved to be the inflexion point.

Next page: Changing fertility

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