Tragedy of Freedom in a Commons


(Adapted from: Garrett Hardin, Science 162, 23 Dec 1968, 1243-48)Tragedy of the Commons - original paper

The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to all. It is expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social-stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorsely generates a tragedy.
As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain explicitly, or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, "what is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?" This has one negative and one positive component.

1. The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal. Since the herdsman receives all the proceeds from the sale of the additional animal, the positive utility is nearly +1.

2. The negative component is a function of the additional overgrazing created by one more animal. Since, however, the effects of overgrazing are shared by all the herdsman, the negative utility for any particular decision making herdsman is only a fraction of -1.

Adding together the component of partial utilities, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is add another animal to his herd. And another, and another...But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy of the commons. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit--in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.
Some would say that this is a platitude. Would that it were! In a sense, it was learned thousands of years ago, but natural selection favors the forces of psychological denial. The individual benefits as an individual from his ability to deny the truth even though society as a whole, of which he is a part, suffers. Education can contradict the natural tendency to do the wrong thing, but inexorable succession of generations requires that the basis for this knowledge be constantly refreshed.

The oceans of the world continue to suffer from the survival of the philosophy of the commons. Maritime nations still respond automatically to the shibboleth of the "freedom of the seas." Professing to believe in the "inexhaustible resources of the oceans," they bring species after species of fish and whales closer to extinction.

The national Parks present another instance of the working out of the tragedy of commons. At the present, they are open to all, without limit. The parks themselves are limited in extent--there is only one Yosemite Valley--whereas population seems to grow without limit. The values that visitors seek in the parks are steadily eroded. Plainly, we must soon cease to treat parks as commons or they will be of no value to anyone.

In a reverse way, the tragedy of the commons reappears in problems of pollution. Here it is not a question of taking something out of the commons, but of putting something in--sewage, or chemical, radioactive, and heat wastes into water; noxious and dangerous fumes into the air; and distracting and unpleasant advertising signs into the line of sight. The calculations of utility are much the same as before. The rational man finds that his share of the cost of wastes he discharges into the commons is less than the cost of purifying his wastes before releasing them. Since this is true for everyone, we are locked into a system of "fouling our own nest," so long as we behave only as independent, rational, free-enterprisers.

The tragedy of the commons as a food basket is averted by private property, or something formally like it. But the air and waters surrounding us cannot readily be fenced, and so the tragedy of commons as a cesspool must be prevented by different means, by coercive laws or taxing devices that make it cheaper for the polluter to treat his pollutants than to discharge them untreated.

We have not progressed as far with the solution of this problem as we have with the first. Indeed our particular concept of private property, which deters us from exhausting the positive resources of the earth, favors pollution. The owner of a factory on the bank of a stream--whose property extends to the middle of the stream--often has difficulty seeing why it is not his natural right to muddy the waters flowing past his door. The law, always behind the times, requires elaborate stitching and fitting to adapt it to this newly perceived aspect of the commons.

The pollution problem is a consequence of population. It did not much matter how a lonely American frontiersman disposed of his waste. "Flowing water purifies itself every 10 miles," my grandfather used to say, and the myth was near enough to the truth when he was a boy, for there were not too many people. But as population became denser, the natural chemical and biological recycling processes became overloaded, calling for a redefinition of property rights.