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September 18, 2008

Debunking the Tragedy of the Commons

The fallacies of the “tragedy of the commons” argument have been made many times since biologist Garrett Hardin made them in 1968. But given the persistence of the metaphor as a justification for privatization, it is always worth revisiting the issue. A recent critique of the “tragedy” myth, by Ian Angus, editor of Climate and Capitalism, appears in The Bullet, an e-bulletin of the Socialist Project, an organization based in Toronto.

Angus notes that Hardin offers no empirical evidence that herders actually overgraze their cattle on shared plots of land, let alone that this is the general rule for shared resources. He also notes that Hardin provides no evidence that private ownership necessarily manages a resource more responsibly; indeed, the “tragedy of the market” is a well-documented phenomenon. Angus also reviews briefly the political usefulness of the tragedy thesis, and its continued misuse in contemporary economics and policy.

Photo by Brenda Anderson, via Flickr, licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license.