Exploding the “tragedy of the commons” myth…

It is common knowledge amongst Anarchists that most of the economic principles we hold as fundamental are worthless and dangerous myths (scarcity, offer and demand, man as homo economicus, the GDP as accurate measure of “the economy,” trade balances, the necessity of government, the “invisible hand,” usury- including profit- as reward, and so on). However, the Tragedy of the Commons argument is one myth that I have yet to see exploded, until now. Hot on the heels of our recent Nobel Prize winner, Ian Angus is the one who blows it all up.

Given the subsequent influence of Hardin’s essay, it’s shocking to realize that he provided no evidence at all to support his sweeping conclusions. He claimed that the “tragedy” was inevitable — but he didn’t show that it had happened even once.

Hardin simply ignored what actually happens in a real commons: self-regulation by the communities involved. One such process was described years earlier in Friedrich Engels’ account of the “mark,” the form taken by commons-based communities in parts of pre-capitalist Germany:

[T]he use of arable and meadowlands was under the supervision and direction of the community. . . .

Just as the share of each member in so much of the mark as was distributed was of equal size, so was his share also in the use of the “common mark.” The nature of this use was determined by the members of the community as a whole. . . .

At fixed times and, if necessary, more frequently, they met in the open air to discuss the affairs of the mark and to sit in judgment upon breaches of regulations and disputes concerning the mark. (Engels 1892)

Historians and other scholars have broadly confirmed Engels’ description of communal management of shared resources. A summary of recent research concludes:

[W]hat existed in fact was not a “tragedy of the commons” but rather a triumph: that for hundreds of years — and perhaps thousands, although written records do not exist to prove the longer era — land was managed successfully by communities. (Cox 1985: 60)

2 thoughts on “Exploding the “tragedy of the commons” myth…

  1. David Gendron November 4, 2009 at 16:27

    I’m not sure about that. But something is clear for me, property rights are not the only solution to fight against the Tragedy of Commons, possession is good too! No way property rights can be justified by the Tragedy of Commons.

    But if Tragedy of Commons is a myth, why don’t we bother about possession, now?

    I’m not sure that Angus shows that Tragedy of Commons is a myth, I think he shows that Tragedy of Commons could be fight efficiently without property rights.

  2. David Gendron November 4, 2009 at 17:24


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