Quotes on the Tragedy of the Commons

"Why are the cattle on a common so puny and stunted? Why is the common itself so bare-worn, and cropped so differently from the adjoining inclosures? No inequality, in respect of natural or acquired fertility, will account for the phenomenon. The difference depends on the difference of the way in which an increase of stock in the two cases affects the circumstances of the author of the increase."

William Forster Lloyd
Oxford University
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"The only way we can preserve and nurture other and more precious freedoms is by relinquishing the freedom to breed, and that very soon. 'Freedom is the recognition of necessity'--and it is the role of education to reveal to all the necessity of abandoning the freedom to breed. Only so, can we put an end to this aspect of the tragedy of the commons.

No technical solution can rescue us from the misery of overpopulation. Freedom to breed will bring ruin to all. At the moment, to avoid hard decisions many of us are tempted to propagandize for conscience and responsible parenthood. The temptation must be resisted, because an appeal to independently acting consciences selects for the disappearance of all conscience in the long run, and an increase in anxiety in the short."

Garrett Hardin
Science, Vol. 168
December 13, 1968
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"The alternative of the commons is too horrifying to contemplate. Injustice is preferable to total ruin."

Garrett Hardin
Science, Vol. 168
December 13, 1968
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"Although we see resource collapses around the world (tragedies of open access), we also see many success stories of long-lasting governance of shared resources (triumphs of the commons). Open access situations are not always tragedies. Many times common-property management regimes fail, as do private property and state-centric regulatory governance regimes. There are no panaceas."

John M. Anderies
Marco A. Janssen
Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity
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"After all, nobody does implicitly believe in landlordism. We hear of estates being held under the king, that is, the State; or of their being kept in trust for the public benefit; and not that they are the inalienable possessions of their nominal owners. Moreover, we daily deny landlordism by our legislation. Is a canal, a railway, or a turnpike road to be made? we do not scruple to seize just as many acres as may be requisite; allowing the holders compensation for the capital invested. We do not wait for consent. An Act of Parliament supersedes the authority of title deeds, and serves proprietors with notices to quit, whether they will or not. Either this is equitable, or it is not. Either the public are free to resume as much of the earth's surface as they think fit, or the titles of the landowners must be considered absolute, and all national works must be postponed until lords and squires please to part with the requisite slices of their estates. If we decide that the claims of individual ownership must give way, then we imply that the right of the national at large to the soil is supreme—that the right of private possession only exists by general consent—that general consent being withdrawn it ceases—that general consent being withdrawn it ceases—or, in other words, that it is no right at all."

Herbert Spencer
Social Statics
Liberty Fund
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"Such a doctrine is consistent with the highest state of civilization; may be carried out without involving a community of goods; and need cause no very serious revolution in existing arrangements. The change required would simply be a change of landlords. Separate ownerships would merge into the joint-stock ownership of the public. Instead of being in the possession of individuals, the country would be he [sic] held by the great corporate body—Society. Instead of leasing his acres from an isolated proprietor, the farmer would lease them from the nation. Instead of paying his rent to the agent of Sir John or his Grace, he would pay it to an agent or deputy-agent of the community. Stewards would be public officials instead of private ones; and tenancy the only land tenure.

A state of things so ordered would be in perfect harmony with the moral law. Under it all men would be equally landlords; all men would be alike free to become tenants. A, B, C, and the rest, might compete for a vacant farm as now, and one of them might take that farm, without in any way violating the principles of pure equity. All would be equally free to bid; all would be equally free to refrain. And when the farm had been let to A, B, or C, all parties would have done that which they willed—the one in choosing to pay a given sum to his fellow-men for the use of certain lands—the others in refusing to pay that sum. Clearly, therefore, on such a system, the earth might be inclosed, occupied, and cultivated, in entire subordination to the law of equal freedom."

Herbert Spencer
Social Statics
Liberty Fund
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"The fact is, that without noticing the change, Mr. Spencer has dropped the idea of equal rights to land, and taken up in its stead a different idea -- that of joint rights to land. That there is a difference may be seen at once. For joint rights may be and often are unequal rights.
The matter is an important one, as it is the source of a great deal of popular confusion. Let me, therefore, explain it fully.
When men have equal rights to a thing, as for instance, to the rooms and appurtenances of a club of which they are members, each has a right to use all or any part of the thing that no other one of them is using. It is only where there is use or some indication of use by one of the others that even politeness dictates such a phrase as 'Allow me!' or 'If you please!'
But where men have joint rights to a thing, as for instance, to a sum of money held to their joint credit, then the consent of all the others is required for the use of the thing or of any part of it, by any one of them.
Now, the rights of men to the use of land are not joint rights: they are equal rights.
Were there only one man on earth, he would have a right to the use of the whole earth or any part of the earth.
When there is more than one man on earth, the right to the use of land that any one of them would have, were he alone, is not abrogated: it is only limited. The right of each to the use of land is still a direct, original right, which he holds of himself, and not by the gift or consent of the others; but it has become limited by the similar rights of the others, and is therefore an equal right. His right to use the earth still continues; but it has become, by reason of this limitation, not an absolute right to use any part of the earth, but (1) an absolute right to use any part of the earth as to which his use does not conflict with the equal rights of others (i.e., which no one else wants to use at the same time), and (2) a coequal right to the use of any part of the earth which he and others may want to use at the same time.
It is, thus, only where two or more men want to use the same land at the same time that equal rights to the use of land come in conflict, and the adjustment of society becomes necessary.
If we keep this idea of equal rights in mind -- the idea, namely, that the rights are the first thing, and the equality merely their limitation -- we shall have no difficulty. It is through forgetting this that Mr. Spencer has been led into confusion."
Henry George
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"This virgin profusion of nature has been steadily giving way before the greater and greater demands which an increasing population has made upon it. Poorer and poorer diggings have been worked, until now no diggings worth speaking of can be found, and gold mining requires much capital, large skill, and elaborate machinery, and involves great risks."

Henry George
Progress and Poverty
Liberty Fund
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"Local, self-organized institutions are a significant asset in the institutional portfolio of humankind, and need to survive into the twenty-first century. Many indigenous institutions that developed to govern and manage local common-pool resources have proven themselves capable of enabling individuals to use these resources intensively over the long run. Some have survived centuries or even millennia without destroying the delicate resources base on which individuals depend for their livelihood."

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"We need not think of 'government' or 'governance' as something provided by states alone. Families, voluntary associations, villages, and other forms of human association all involve some self-government. Rather than looking only to states, we need to give much more attention to building the kinds of basic institutional structures that enable people to find ways of relating constructively to one another and of resolving problems in their daily lives."

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"For intellectual property, the activities at issue are creating and innovating, processes that in effect lead to the expansion of existing commons rather than their overuse."

Shubha Ghosh
University of California, Davis Law Review
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In his textbook, Economics of the Public Sector, Joe Stiglitz categorizes market failures in general and those that exist in health care in particular. The following ... is based on his list, with a lot of my own thoughts added.

"Of course, in and of itself, this supply of natural resources is largely useless. What is important from the perspective of economic activity and production is the subset of natural resources that human intelligence has identified as possessing properties capable of serving human needs and wants and over which human beings have gained the power actually to direct to the satisfaction of their...

"The 'tragedy of the commons' metaphor helps explain why people overuse shared resources."

"One of the great tragedies of socialism has been the confounding of common rights (natural rights common to each individual) with collective rights (those that have been delegated to the community or its government). Common rights are inalienable, individual rights -- the very opposite of collective rights. Classical liberalism was based on the idea of common rights."

By drawing on various examples, the author explains how countries of the freest economies maintain the best environmental conditions and that capitalism is the most powerful tool for environmental conservation.

Somin summarizes Elinor Ostrom's contributions to the field of economics. 

Nothing follows from the fact that there is 'market failure.' To make the case for transferring decision making power to government one would have to show that the likely 'government failure' would be less harmful.

This post complements one yesterday that focused on market failures in health insurance.... It’s loosely based on the content of Economics of the Public Sector, by Joe Stiglitz.

"Before there were markets, there was social space, which is common space. Economists deem this realm a void, but in fact it was a teeming realm of productivity."

"What kind of framework encourages experimentation without at the same time perpetuating bad ideas? Here is one hypothesis: in societies that sustain progress over long periods, people are free to experiment at their own expense and free from having to pay for other people's bad ideas. This is the true test of a system of property.


"The theory here relates to market failure. Market failure occurs where resources are not allocated to their most efficient use. In the case of the environment the failure occurs because of the existence of negative externalities. Negative externalities are the effects on a third party of an economic decision. Businesses highlighted in the Environment Agency report...

"The basic idea of patents is a good one: an inventor is granted a limited monopoly (20 years, in America and elsewhere) over a technology in return for disclosing the details of its workings, so that others can build upon the invention. Advanced technologies are thus made widely available, rather than remaining trade secrets, spurring further innovation. In some industries, notably pharmaceuticals, it is doubtful that the huge investments needed to develop new products would be made without the prospect of patent protection."

"Property is a general term for rules governing access to and control of land and other material resources. Because these rules are disputed, both in regard to their general shape and in regard to their particular application, there are interesting philosophical issues about the justification of property. Modern philosophical discussions focus mostly on the issue of the justification of...

"One of the most fundamental requirements of a capitalist economic system—and one of the most misunderstood concepts—is a strong system of property rights. For decades social critics in the United States and throughout the Western world have complained that 'property' rights too often take precedence over 'human' rights, with the result that people are treated unequally and have unequal...

Boaz discusses shark populations and why the ocean sometimes presents a tragedy of the commons. 

"Patents can have a dramatic impact on access to medicines when they are used to prevent competition.  A drug company that holds patents on a medicine has the right to prevent others from manufacturing it and therefore can charge an artificially high price.  When a company is selling CD-ROMs or toy dolls for example, this might be of no great significance.  But when life-saving...

"The 2009 Nobel Prize for economics is a useful reminder of how easy it is for scientists to go wrong, especially when their mistake jibes with popular beliefs or political agendas."

"Speedy Internet links, improved compression techniques, and fatter hard drives have dealt harshly with traditional views of copyright. From the ongoing courtroom wrangling over Napster's fate to the online swapping of pirated movies, our current copyright structure is being stretched and tested by unforeseen technologies."

"Nobel Prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom proved that people can—and do—work together to manage commonly-held resources without degrading them."

This encyclopedia entry explains the basic idea behind the Tragedy of the Commons. Historically, England's public pastures were in far worse condition than private lands. This was because each individual using the public space was guided by self-interest to exploit the area, while the responsibility for maintaining the area was shared by the entire community.

Hardin tells us, "...

Drezner discusses the tragedy of the commons in the context of global politics and the problem of setting international rules. 

Chart or Graph

A Framework for Institutional Analysis.

Contextual payoff table for the prisoner's dilemma.

A helpful way to analyze institutional rules.

Diagram of four types of goods and their relative sustainability.

A graph of Hardin's Common Pasture.

Analysis Report White Paper

Market failures associated with environmental pollution interact with market failures associated with the innovation and diffusion of new technologies.

Global sustainable use of natural resources confronts our society as a collective action problem at an unprecedented scale. Past research has provided insights into the attributes of local social-ecological systems that enable e ffective self-governance.

This paper is a study of collective action in asymmetric access to a common resource. An example is an irrigation system with upstream and downstream resource users. While both contribute to the maintenance of the common infrastructure, the upstream participant has first access to the resource.

Efforts to estimate the effects of international trade on a country's real income have been hampered by the failure to account for the endogeneity of trade. Frankel and Romer recently use a country's geographic attributes to construct an instrument to identify the effects of trade on income in 1985.

This paper finds that trade may indeed have a beneficial effect on three measures of air pollution, particulate matter, NO2, and SO2.

Rothbard explains why whether or not we consider the law to be normative affects what we think about property and its possible environmental side effects.

"Six years ago in Science, Michael Heller and Rebecca Eisenberg asked the disarmingly simple question whether patent protection could deter biomedical research.... They treated patent protection as a two-edged sword. Happily, patents spur innovation by securing to inventors the fruits of their labors. Unhappily, patents also create a vast thicket that gives each patent holder a potential veto right over the innovations of others. This last risk they dubbed the tragedy of the anticommons, which results when property rights are too strong instead of too weak, as in the traditional tragedy of the commons."

People have been fretting about the 'population problem' for at least fifty years. But over those five decades, the perceived problem has practically reversed.

This paper examines the story of the Malpai Borderlands Group, its formation, and a few key struggles that they faced to become one of the leading examples of public-private collaborations in the US. This paper will argue that both the scope and key features of their success is best understood within the institutional context of the rangelands and its complex regulatory landscape.

Because human beings are fated to live mostly on the surface of the earth, the pattern of entitlements to use land is a central issue in social organization.

"[I]n the modern age we have substituted collective decision-making for individual decision-making with respect to many environmental issues. This change in turn has created perverse incentives that (ironically) have led to environmental harm."

Much of the literature on the tragedy of the commons focuses on saving the global commons through increased centralization and regulation, at the expense of the individual's autonomy and psychological sense of community.

Socialism can be looked upon as a fourth potential strategy for avoiding Garrett Hardin's 'tragedy of the commons.' The other three are social pressure, regulations, and division of the resource into private sections.

The authors present Elinor Ostrom's Nobel-Prize winning work on "the commons" and human institutions in textbook format.

Rose contrasts the classical economic view of property with more ancient and contemporary ideas for public or collective land ownership.

Hardin's tragedy is about the commons looking in; intellectual property is about looking out from existing commons to more expansive horizons. I enunciate this difference in what I call the 'fable of the commons,' a narrative device that illustrates the relevance of the concept of the commons for intellectual property.

Competition among scientists for funding, positions and prestige, among other things, is often seen as a salutary driving force in U.S. science. Its effects on scientists, their work and their relationships are seldom considered.

Output per worker varies enormously across countries. Why? Our analysis shows that differences in governmental, cultural, and natural infrastructure are important sources of this variation.

Garrett Hardin's essay 'The Tragedy of the Commons' has remained controversial, but it has inspired a vast number of theoretical, experimental, and empirical contributions that have clarified the mechanisms of collective action problems and suggested ways to overcome these. This article reviews the recent game-theoretic research in this field.

Crowe's is one of the most famous responses to Hardin's 1968 essay on the "Tragedy of the Commons."

In the study of conflicts, both economists and evolutionary biologists use the concepts 'tragedy of the commons' and 'public goods dilemma'. What is the relationship between the economist and evolutionist views of these concepts?

"There are many reasons why it is alleged that markets fail. One reason is due to the existence of 'externalities.'"

The authors apply the idea of the "anticommons" to their observation that taxes on wireless services are disporportionately high.


"Lecture by Walter Block given to the 1990 ISIL World Libertarian Convention.

Walter Block, an Austrian school economist and anarcho-libertarian philosopher, is Harold E. Wirth Eminent Scholar Chair in Economics and professor of economics at Loyola University New Orleans and senior fellow with the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He is the author of the books Defending the Undefendable;...

"In economic activity, there are sometimes 'externalities' or spillover effects to other people not involved in the original exchange. Positive externalities result in beneficial outcomes for others, but negative externalities impose costs on others. Prof. Sean Mullholland at Stonehill College addresses a classic example of a negative externality, pollution, and describes three possible...

"Elinor Ostrom explains how people can use natural resources in a sustainable way based on the diversity that exists in the world."

A dedicated, unabashed, free market capitalist, T. J. Rodgers takes a businessman's and engineer's view of global warming.

"People living together must find some way to preserve common resources. Unfortunately, there are strong incentives for people to exploit these resources when they are held in common by everyone. As Prof. Sean Mulholland at Stonehill College explains, the 'tragedy of the commons' occurs when individuals acting independently end up depleting shared resources, such as fisheries or pastureland....

Primary Document

This work is George's critique of the political philosopher Herbert Spencer, who, in Social Statics, had erroneously substituted the idea of collective rights with common rights.

"Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights). So strong and far-reaching are these rights that they raise the question of what, if anything, the state and its officials may do. How much room do individual rights leave for the state? The nature of the state, its legitimate functions and its justifications, if any, is the...

In her 2009 Nobel speech, Ostrom discusses her work on polycentric systems and peoples' diverse strategies for governing common-pool resources.


In an opinion authored by Justice John Paul Stevens, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the city of New London, Connecticut could condemn Susette Kelo's house and take the property for the purpose of economic development. The question presented was whether the city's actions fit within the "public use" requirement of the Fifth Amendment. The Court found that in...

"The recent enactment of the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act (AIA), P.L. 112-29, suggests congressional interest in patents on diagnostic methods."

"The former book of these commentaries having treated at large of the jura personarum, or such rights and duties as are annexed to the persons of men, the objects of our inquiry in this second book will be the jura rerum, or those rights which a man may acquire in and to such external things as are unconnected with his person. These are what the writers in natural law style the rights of...

"Perhaps Henry George's best known work in which he examines the causes of poverty and, among other things, blames it on the monopoly of land ownership."

Paul Aligica interviews Vincent and Elinor Ostrom on their lifetime work concerning the terms of choice and the role of institutions. 

Because the proposed free-trade agreements would be of substantial benefit to the economies of small developing countries while having little effect on the U.S. economy (and a beneficial effect at that), they provide a relatively easy way for the United States to help such countries.

In this chapter, taken from Spencer’s first major work of political philosophy, he questions the theory of private property.  

Locke's Second Treatise develops his descriptions of the state of nature along with natural law. His work was extremely influential in the founding of America and its Constitution.

In this 1968 article in Science, the ecologist Garrett Hardin mainstreamed concerns about the "Tragedy of the Commons." Hardin was particularly worried about human overpopulation.

F.A. Hayek presents a very thorough analysis on the role of knowledge and infomation in societies, how it is transmitted in various societies and economic systems, how a lack of knowledge ultimately proves to be the downfall of central planning, and other key topics.

In 1832, William Forster Lloyd observed that cattle grazing on common land tended to be scrawnier than those raised in private enclosures. This came to be known as the "tragedy of the commons." Lloyd's Two Lectures are inspired by Thomas Malthus and other British intellectuals who were worried about unsustainable population growth.