In many people’s minds, the phrase ”commons“ immediately evokes a sense of tragedy.
That harks back more than forty years to a famous essay appearing in Science magazine, ”The Tragedy of the Commons“ by wildlife biologist Garrett Hardin.
Hardin offered the example of grazing lands—perhaps the most familiar use of the word commons—to describe how greedy self-interest pushes farmers to let their animals overgraze common pastures. They can reap bigger profits from this degradation of the land, at least until the whole ecosystem collapses.
But the situation Hardin describes is actually ”The Tragedy of the Unmanaged Commons“, as he later conceded. Throughout history cultures, including our own, devised effective systems to make sure that common assets were not depleted. That was the wisdom behind hunting and fishing seasons, environmental laws, financial regulations, social programs and many other common-sense measures.
Many forms of commons, such as the Internet, actually operate on a ”Cornucopia of the Commons“ model, where a large number of users increases the value for everyone else.