For many people, the term “the commons” brings to mind “the tragedy of the commons.” That idea was launched by biologist Garrett Hardin in the journal Science in 1968. In his now-famous essay, Hardin asked readers to imagine a pasture in which no individual farmer has a rational incentive to hold back his use of it. He declared that each individual farmer will put as many sheep on the pasture as possible, which will inevitably result in the over-exploitation and destruction of the pasture: the tragedy of the commons.
Over the past two generations, economists and conservative ideologues elevated the “tragedy parable” into a cultural cliché because they saw it as a powerful way to promote private property rights and so-called free markets, and to fight government regulation.
But Hardin was not really describing a commons. He was describing an open-access regime that has no rules, boundaries or indeed no community. In fact, the situation he was describing – in which free riders can appropriate or damage resources at will — is more accurately a description of unfettered markets. You might say Hardin was describing the tragedy of the market.
Professor Elinor Ostrom of Indiana University powerfully rebutted the whole “tragedy of the commons” fable in her landmark 1990 book, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. This book and hundreds of other case studies by Ostrom and her colleagues showed that it is entirely possible for communities to manage forests, fisheries, farmland, irrigation water, wild game and other natural resources as commons, without over-exploiting them.
How? People talk to each other. They negotiate rules, they build systems to identify and punish free riders, they develop community norms and cultural traditions, among many other techniques. The commons is so prevalent as a system for meeting needs that an estimated two billion people around the world depend on commons for their everyday survival. Strangely, most economists simply ignore commons as a provisioning paradigm because their activities take place outside of conventional markets and cash exchange.
For her pioneering work in studying the role of cooperation in generating value, Ostrom won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009 – the first woman to win the award. A robust international network of scholars continues her research into commons, most notably via the International Association for the Study of Commons.