In the belief system called economics, it is an article of faith that commons are inherently tragic. Almost by definition, they are tragic because they are prone to overuse. What belongs to all belongs to none, and only private or state ownership can rescue a commons from the sad fate that will otherwise befall it.
The standard reference for this belief is an article that appeared in Science in 1968 called “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Though the author, Garrett Hardin, was a biologist, his article was strangely lacking in scientific inquiry. It was more like economics—an extrapolation from assumptions rather than an investigation of reality.
Hardin assumed that all commons are free-for-alls. He bid his readers to “picture” a hypothetical pasture peopled with hypothetical herders. These herders existed outside of any social structure and lacked even a capacity to talk with one another. They all behaved according to what the economics texts call “rationality”: they let their herds loose in the pasture in a single-minded effort to maximize their own gain, with no thought for the future or for anybody else. Under those assumptions, tragedy is a foregone conclusion.
What Hardin overlooked is that people do not necessarily behave as economists assume they do. As historian E. P. Thompson observed, Hardin failed to grasp “that commoners themselves were not without common sense.” Thompson was referring specifically to the common-field agriculture of his own England. Households had their own plots but shared land for hunting, foraging, and grazing. They pooled their implements and labor for joint maintenance and combined
their herds to fertilize their respective plots. The destruction Hardin declared to be inevitable simply did not happen. To the contrary, the system worked well for hundreds of years.
The literature is full of similar examples of long-lasting commons. Spain has had shared irrigation systems, called huerta, for 600 years. The farmers whose lands adjoin each canal elect their own chief executive, called a syndic. They get water from the canal on a rotating basis; during droughts, the crops with the greatest need get first priority. Similarly, in the alpine regions of Switzerland, grazing pastures typically are commons, as are forests, irrigation systems, and the paths and roadways connecting private and common property.
In these places and elsewhere, the commons and the private exist in symbiosis, like the common areas of an apartment co-op or condominium. Each form of property serves the purpose for which it is suited best. Even in the American plains, early cattle ranchers found ways to cooperate rather than destroy the habitat that sustained their herds. They adopted the Mexican practice of branding to distinguish different herds. They cooperated on roundups and cattle drives. And they limited their herds and worked to keep out newcomers. It wasn’t always pretty, but it also wasn’t the calamity Hardin assumed is unavoidable in open pasture.
Hardin’s essay won applause in environmental quarters mainly because it was not really about the commons. It was a case for population control, and the tragedy thesis served as a grim parable to that end. From the start, however, anthropologists and others who actually studied commons objected to Hardin’s fabricated thesis; indeed, Elinor Ostrom won a Nobel Prize in economics for explaining the longevity of commons. Eventually, Hardin modified his stance. He acknowledged that overuse is not due to common ownership per se, but to the absence of rules governing access and use.
Overused commons do exist, of course. Fisheries are an example; the atmosphere is another. When overuse occurs, there generally has been a breakdown in the social structures that once governed use, or the scale of breakdown of such structures is difficult to establish.
The real tragedy surrounding the commons has been the invasion by corporate, governmental, and other external forces. Native Americans did not eradicate the buffalo on the western plains; white hunters and soldiers did. Local people in Appalachia did not slice the tops off mountains; outside corporations did. It is therefore strange that the reigning ideology focuses on the self-destruction of commons when the scale of outside devastation is so much greater.
One reason for the tragedy myth’s tenacity may be its implicit remedy: privatization. Privatizing commons usually means corporatizing them. This has its advocates. Unfortunately, when it comes to exploiting the commons, corporations have no built-in capacity to say “enough.” They are slaves to quarterly earnings statements and the demands of shareholders, all of which push toward liquidating nature and other commons, not sustaining them.
A paradigmatic example is Pacific Lumber, a California company that in the 1980s owned most of the old-growth redwoods still in private hands. Pacific Lumber was unusual. Its chief executive was a lifelong timberman named A. S. Murphy who believed in harvesting no more than the forests could replace. “Their approach,” wrote David Harris in The Last Stand, “was to treat the forest as capital and try to live off the interest.”
This virtue did not go unpunished. Pacific’s self-discipline meant its forests were ripe for less conscientious plucking. Its clean balance sheet—Murphy believed in pay-as-you-go—left plenty of room for a raider to load up the company with debt. And this is exactly what happened.
During the leveraged buyout boom of the 1980s, a corporate chief by the name of Charles Hurwitz teamed up with Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky, two of the more infamous financiers of the era, to take over Pacific Lumber. They mortgaged the company to the hilt to finance the purchase. Then, in order to pay off the debt, Hurwitz began liquidating the forests Murphy had conserved. Finance trumped husbandry,as nowadays it usually does. The result was a tragedy to, but not caused by, the commons.