MathBench > Environmental Science

Tragedy of the Commons


With calls to conscience out of the picture, maybe we need some stronger stuff. How about… just making people do what they should do? This sounds, well, coercive, but that’s exactly what a law is: coercion. Garrett Hardin says:

bank robber"Consider bank-robbing. The man who takes money from a bank acts as if the bank were a commons. How do we prevent such action? Certainly not by trying to control his behavior solely by a verbal appeal to his [conscience].

Rather ... we insist that a bank is not a commons; we seek the definite social arrangements that will keep it from becoming a commons.

That we thereby infringe on the freedom of would-be robbers we neither deny nor regret."


Of course there are a number of ways to implement coercion…

Arguably the best kind of coercion is a kind that occurs democratically – what Hardin calls “mutual coercion mutually agreed upon.”

"To say that we mutually agree to coercion is not to say that we are required to enjoy it ... who enjoys taxes? We all grumble about them. But we accept compulsory taxes because we recognize that voluntary taxes would favor the conscienceless."

For example, in my medieval village, a village council might decide that each family could have at most 2 goats on the village green, or it could impose a tax on having more goats, and use the tax money to improve the land. Either of these could cause the goat population to stabilize, avoiding the degradation of overgrazing and the collapse of the village economy.

Would the survival of each family in the village be guaranteed? Not necessarily. Remember, commons tragedies are NOT necessarily caused by greed, but by self-interest. Acting against your self-interest can be, well, not in your best interests. Avoiding the tragedy of the commons does NOT necessarily avoid a tragedy for the individual.