Tragedy of the commons

As a discipline, International Relations is packed with parables. Sometimes, they are hypothetical stories and sometimes they are interpretations of historical events. In each case, they are meant to demonstrate something important about how world politics works. Almost without exception, some aspect of their validity can be questioned on either historical or logical grounds.

When it comes to global environmental politics, perhaps the most well-known such parable is the ‘tragedy of the commons.’ Garrett Hardin is generally credited with coming up with the idea in a paper published in 1968. That said, the same idea was expressed in Michael Graham’s 1948 book The Fish Gate, in which he described how fisheries where access is unlimited will inevitably become unprofitable and fail. The logic of an individual who cannot control the entirety of a resource grabbing as much as possible before its inevitable destruction is the key feature of both analyses.

Personally, I would rather give the credit for the idea to Graham, rather than to Hardin (though it probably far precedes either of them). After all, the latter thinker went on to write such logically and ethically dubious documents as Lifeboat Ethics: the Case Against Helping the Poor. In an illustrative passage, Hardin says:

A wise and competent government saves out of the production of the good years in anticipation of bad years to come. Joseph taught this policy to Pharaoh in Egypt more than 2,000 years ago. Yet the great majority of the governments in the world today do not follow such a policy. They lack either the wisdom or the competence, or both. Should those nations that do manage to put something aside be forced to come to the rescue each time an emergency occurs among the poor nations?

His assertion that affluent societies are such because their leaders have set aside a surplus in times of plenty, whereas the leaders of poor societies have not, represents a massively myopic and superficial understanding of the processes of wealth accumulation, as well as the interactions between historically dominant and historically oppressed states. Explaining patterns of development in such a simplistic way obscures important elements of world economic history. Going on to justify a cold-hearted ethic of indifference to suffering and injustice outside the rich world likewise represents inappropriate extrapolation and faulty thinking.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

14 thoughts on “Tragedy of the commons”

  1. Some other ‘parables:’

    the Peace of Westphalia
    Chamberlain and the Munich Crisis
    Reagan and the Soviets
    The stag hunt
    The Melian dialog

  2. Even Rawls claimed national prosperity was primarily a result of choice rather than natural endowment, thereby limiting international redistribution…

  3. Even Rawls claimed that national prosperity was primarily a result of choice rather than natural endowment, thereby limiting international redistribution. It seems he wasn’t the first to have such thoughts.

  4. Rawls also claimed that national prosperity was primarily a result of choice rather than natural endowment, thereby limiting international redistribution. It seems he wasn’t the first to have such thoughts.

  5. It is one thing to say that national choices have an effect upon wealth: a claim that is surely true. It is quite another to assert that all states have had the opportunity to be equally rich, provided they had made simple prudent choices. This doesn’t apply so much to a small, landlocked state with few resources that is surrounded by problematic neighbours, for instance.

  6. Surely people have understood about ‘the tragedy of the commons’ ever since people began enforcing claims to territory.

    “The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said “This is mine,” and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society.”

  7. Ah, Bats: The Big-Bug Scourge of the Skies. I especially like the bit about “the fluttering of leathery wings.”

  8. Wow, that is pretty myopic. That plus Hardin in one blog post: when bad people happen to good ideas.

  9. An ecologist, Garrett Hardin, coined the phrase “the tragedy of the commons” in a (shockingly eugenicist) essay in Science in 1968. But the free-rider problem that afflicts public goods has been well-known to economists for a century. Consider a pasture on which every herdsman may graze his cattle. Each has an incentive to use it as intensively as possible: since it is open to all, restraint exercised by one herdsman simply frees up grass to be chomped by another’s animals, leaving those who hold back worse off, not just relatively, but in absolute terms. The common pasture will inevitably end up overgrazed to the point of ruin. Many valuable public resources are similarly prone to overconsumption. Roadways become congested, waterways overfished and slices of electromagnetic spectrum crowded into uselessness, to the detriment of total social welfare.

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