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Retrospectives: Tragedy of the Commons after 50 Years

Brett M. Frischmann, Alain Marciano and Giovanni Ramello ()

Journal of Economic Perspectives, 2019, vol. 33, issue 4, 211-28

Abstract: Garrett Hardin's "The Tragedy of the Commons" (1968) has been incredibly influential generally and within economics, and it remains important despite some historical and conceptual flaws. Hardin focused on the stress population growth inevitably placed on environmental resources. Unconstrained consumption of a shared resource—a pasture, a highway, a server—by individuals acting in rational pursuit of their self-interest can lead to congestion and, worse, rapid depreciation, depletion, and even destruction of the resources. Our societies face similar problems, with respect to not only environmental resources but also infrastructures, knowledge, and many other shared resources. In this article, we examine how the tragedy of the commons has fared within the economics literature and its relevance for economic and public policies today. We revisit the original piece to explain Hardin's purpose and conceptual approach. We expose two conceptual mistakes he made: conflating resource with governance and conflating open access with commons. This critical discussion leads us to the work of Elinor Ostrom, the recent Nobel Prize in Economics laureate, who spent her life working on commons. Finally, we discuss a few modern examples of commons governance of shared resources.

JEL-codes: Q21 Q28 (search for similar items in EconPapers)
Date: 2019
Note: DOI: 10.1257/jep.33.4.211
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Handle: RePEc:aea:jecper:v:33:y:2019:i:4:p:211-28