Have you ever noticed that parks are often messier than shopping malls? Or that people take better care of their cars than they do school or public buses, or subway cars? These are all examples of what is called the tragedy of the commons.
In 1833 British economist William Foster Lloyd noticed that cattle grazed on public land were scrawnier than cattle grazed on private land. He began exploring why, and coined the term “tragedy of the commons” to describe it. It came into widespread use in 1968 when ecologist Garrett Hardin explored it further.
The idea is pretty simple. Much of our stuff belongs to us individually. When we take good care of it, it benefits us. When we abuse it, over the long-term, we are harmed. In other words, we bear the responsibility, good and bad, for our actions when we owe things.
Public stuff, by contrast, is owned by none of us (or all of us). If we can get away with it, overusing public stuff benefits us personally – at least in the short-term. But everyone else is worse off, in both the short- and long-term.
Take Halloween. You’ve probably all experienced the people who put out a bowl of candy and leave a sign to “take one”. Rarely does the bowl last long. One bad actor can get away with it. But if everyone did so, many people would get no candy, and the institution of trick-or-treat would probably die away quickly. This is the Tragedy of the Commons.
Understanding the problem provides opportunities to creatively solve it. In some African countries, for instance, they have given ownership of wild animals to local villages. Instead of poachers killing them all, the villagers now carefully protect them, to sell to hunters and photo safari tourists. The tourists benefit, as do the villagers, and the animals are protected by the poachers.
- Have you ever raided a “take only one piece” candy bowl at Halloween? Have you ever arrived at an unattended bowl and found it empty, early in the evening?
- What do you think is the role of property rights in solving the tragedy of the commons?
- Can you think of other examples of this principle at play?
24, Oct. 2018, Liter in a Public Park [Digital photograph]. Retrieved from <intellectualtakeout.org>.