The tragedy of the commons is sold as the idea that common property is over used, and thus arguments are made that there should be regulations over the commons, or it should be owned privately, ostensibly since a private owner would take better care of it (though this depends on if it's part of subsistence living or used for extraction of resources, to then just buy more). Any theory has to explain actual evidence though. So people who share more in common should be overusing resources more than those who privatize more. But I haven't seen this ever being the case.

The misconception comes from people imposing their ideas of private ownership as a given. If you have people letting their cows overgraze common land, then economists argue the issue is with the common land, not with the private ownership of the cows, i.e. everyone trying to increase their own livestock. So the tragedy is really private ownership. Everyone is forced to increase their own quantity, or else someone else will and corner the market. Humans needs have limits, private ownership doesn't, when imposed as the rule.

But are there instances where common ownership is actually to blame? I'm not talking about like people making animals extinct because they are new to the area and easy to hunt. I'm talking about the reason for overuse being specifically due to common ownership in the society, as the tragedy shows with private ownership.

I'm asking about societies with different levels of sharing. Whereas usually overuse of resources follows societies based on less sharing, are there cases where societies based on more sharing overuse resources more than those with less sharing? Is there any actual credence to a tragedy of the commons?

Examples of the fallacy can be described in the wiki page itself, they can generally be described as tragedy of private ownership. But if there is any real evidence, it would be good to hear.


One could argue that the tragedy of the commons means tragedy of the commons in a society with private ownership, but that would means it's misleading at best.


1 Answer 1

  1. Wild animals in a forest are actually valid example of common ownership as their ownership is shared by all members of society. Harding who popularized the concept of tragedy of commons explicitly thought of wildlife as common property. There are other examples than that, but this mistake should be pointed out. Discarding some evidence arbitrarily is not good practice.

  2. As for an example not related to nature was USSR.

  • in USSR private property was prohibited.

  • USSR experienced over-use of natural resources. There are many examples, the most famous one is the shrinking of Aral Sea. This is one of the best documented cases, it started to shrink at the height of USSR in 1960 and this was primarily result of USSR using the common resource (water) for irrigation purposes.

  • $\begingroup$ Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Economics Meta, or in Economics Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed. $\endgroup$
    – 1muflon1
    Commented Aug 6, 2023 at 19:34
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    $\begingroup$ The Aral Sea is a bad example. It was not a common resource destroyed by multiple independent actors; rather the central government of the USSR made a conscious decision to sacrifice it by diverting the water to grow cotton instead. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 7, 2023 at 15:54

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