Note — Apr 21, 2022

The Myth of the Tragedy of the Commons

I wrote a post on the Fab City blog, What are the Commons? And had to search through my notes for debunks of the tragedy of the commons, so I thought I’d write a quick note with everything together, for future reference.

It was already in a past issue of the newsletter, with the article The tragedy of the commons is a false and dangerous myth, I’m quoting again below. And here are two more articles/quotes on the topic:

morals in the machine

I can understand the philosophical appeal of a system, financial or otherwise, that promises that you don’t have to trust anyone but seemingly neutral machines. But embedded in that promise is a core belief that everyone is untrustworthy, and that a system based on humans trusting one another will always be worse than one in which we never have to take a risk on interdependence.

I can’t prove one way or another whether this belief is correct. I do know that a worldview that sees human nature as intrinsically bad and immune to improvement is incredibly bleak. It ignores social science research about human altruism, our willingness to collaborate, and how we are affected by structural incentives that can always be restructured to create different incentives. “Tragedy of the commons” is frequently invoked as evidence of our instinct for selfishness, and like many flawed shorthands that have captured the popular imagination, it comes preloaded with a political agenda—in this case, one that favours privatization and protectionism.

The challenge of reclaiming the commons from capitalism

This loss is rooted, in large part, in the tragedy of the private – this notion that moved, in short order, from curious idea to ideology to global economic system. It claimed selfishness, greed and private property as the real seeds of progress. Indeed, the mistaken concept many readers have likely heard under the name ‘the tragedy of the commons’ has its origins in the sophomoric assumption that private interest is the naturally predominant guide for human action. The real tragedy, however, lies not in the commons, but in the private. It is the private that produces violence, destruction and exclusion. Standing on its head thousands of years of cultural wisdom, the idea of the private variously separates, exploits and exhausts those living under its cold operating logic.

The tragedy of the commons is a false and dangerous myth

The features of successful systems, Ostrom and her colleagues found, include clear boundaries (the ‘community’ doing the managing must be well-defined); reliable monitoring of the shared resource; a reasonable balance of costs and benefits for participants; a predictable process for the fast and fair resolution of conflicts; an escalating series of punishments for cheaters; and good relationships between the community and other layers of authority, from household heads to international institutions.