The Essential Lessons From “The Tragedy Of The Commons”

“The Tragedy of the Commons” is a theory of economics written by Garrett Hardin in 1968. In this essay, Hardin posits that individual usage of a common resource without regard for its group value leads to its depletion and destruction. Background for the theory involves the Enclosure Acts in England from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Cows and sheep would graze together freely on a patch of land, resulting in overgrazing and destruction of the resource. Hardin carries this over into a discussion of the natural resources of the earth, human population growth, and the welfare state. In Hardin’s view, indiscriminate propagation of the human race with no regard for the conservation of resources is irresponsible and unsustainable, and thus common resources require management.

The Essential Lessons From "The Tragedy Of The Commons"

Population Growth

According to Hardin, improvements in the technology of food production do not support an indefinite increase in human population, because the earth, like the patch of commons land, is a finite resource. Individual choices do not solve collective problems like overpopulation because of the inevitable tendency of individuals to favor their own interests. Hardin criticizes welfare as an artificial support for those who choose to over-breed. Appealing to individual conscience would not solve the problem, as those without conscience would overwhelm those who make the right choices. The only solution is to take away individual freedom of choice and replace it with an agreed-upon system of coercion. Hardin’s reasoning in this area has often been criticized as over-simplistic and failing to recognize how individual communities manage to control their populations and resources according to local culture and circumstances.

Natural Resources

“The Tragedy of the Commons” is often looked at in reference to the use and depletion of the earth’s natural resources, specifically air, water, and fish from the sea. Unlimited and indiscriminate use of these resources leads to air and water pollution, a lack of drinking water in some parts of the world, and the scarcity of a vital source of food. Individuals and governments come to moral agreements on the need to protect these resources, and restrictions and laws are implemented to control their use. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency sets pollution standards; failure to comply with these regulations results in fines or imprisonment. As a society, people agree to these limitations at federal, state, and local levels. On an international scale, treaties set territorial boundaries for fishing rights and establish safeguards for the protection of marine resources.

Other Public Resources

There are many other public arenas in which the concept of “The Tragedy of the Commons” potentially comes into play. Without FCC regulations, radio transmissions would become hopelessly garbled from the overuse of high-power transmitters. Spam email benefits only a few individuals and companies while degrading the quality of the Internet email system. Common source code and other beneficial software become polluted with errors and inaccurate information from hackers.

One often-proposed solution to the dilemma of “The Tragedy of the Commons” is the conversion of common resources into private property. This gives the owners incentive to conserve. However, some resources, such as the breathable atmosphere and the global fish population, are impossible to privatize. Alternative theories suggest that international guidelines and moral principles should control common resource usage. The consensus seems to be that it is easier to find solutions within smaller groups rather than at larger, more complex levels.

Darryl Mortensen writes on economics, finance, banking, business, accounting and other related issues. Those contemplating a career in finance should consider the finance jobs with as a means of entry.

Image credit goes to stephens planning.

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