Tragedy of the Commons: Managing Common Resources


The concept of “common goods” refers to resources that are accessible to everyone, as they are not limited by private ownership. However, Garrett Hardin (1968) highlighted the potential for a “tragedy” to befall these common goods, leading to their depletion—a phenomenon known as the Tragedy of the Commons.

Illustrating the Tragedy of the Commons

Hardin used the example of communal fields where multiple herders could graze their animals freely. As there is no private ownership, each herder is incentivized to bring as many animals as possible, leading to overexploitation and the eventual degradation of the once-fertile land.

Three Proposed Solutions

The inevitability of this “tragedy” poses a significant challenge to our economies and societies. Economists have suggested three primary solutions.

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1. Nationalization or State Regulation

Building on Cecil Pigou’s work, proponents argue that only the state can effectively manage common goods and externalities. Implementing a system of taxation or subsidies would penalize negative externalities (like pollution) or reward positive externalities.

2. Privatization

The Coase Theorem asserts that assigning property rights results in the optimal allocation of resources. Ronald Coase (Nobel Prize 1991) advocated for this idea in his 1960 paper, “The Problem of Social Cost.” This concept gave rise to emissions trading markets, such as the market for pollution rights.

3. Local Actor Management

Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom (2009) extensively studied the management of common goods. Her research concluded that local communities, living in proximity to and utilizing these resources, can effectively manage them. Ostrom suggested polycentric governance—decision-making procedures across multiple levels. Notably, her later work delves into crucial issues like climate change and digital common goods.

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The Tragedy of the Commons poses a formidable challenge, but these proposed solutions offer pathways to sustainable resource management. Whether through state intervention, privatization, or local governance, addressing the depletion of common resources requires thoughtful and strategic approaches.

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