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Is the Tragedy of the Commons of Myth?

Written By: Jason Shafrin - Feb• 14•13

There is a well known problem in economics known as the tragedy of the commons.  This problem occurs when a resource, often land, is shared among many people.  Without individual property rights, individuals have an incentive to over-consume and not maintain the resource.  For instance, Garrett Hardin gave an example of a case where herders, sharing a common parcel of land, have an incentive to place more and more cows to graze on the land.  By putting more cows on the land, his interest is advanced at the expense of the community since the resource (the common land) may be damaged due to overgrazing.

This problem, however, may be greatly overblown according to Francis Fukuyama.  In his book, The Origins of Political Order, Fukuyama states the following:

It is not even clear to what extent the tragedy of the commons described by Hardin was a real problem in English history. The open-field system ended by Parliamentary Enclosure Movement was not the most efficient use of land, and the wealthy private landowners who drove peasants off communal property in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had strong motives for doing so. But in the open-field system, which was “based on the solidarity of the groups of neighbour cultivators, [which was originally conditioned by kinship,” land was not as a rule overexploited or wasted. To the extent it was, it was likely due to the decline of social solidarity within rural English villages. In other parts of the world, it is hard to find documented cases of the tragedy of the commons unfolding in well-functioning tribal societies with communal property. This is certainly not a problem that afflicts Melanesia.

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