Wikipedia states:

The tragedy of the commons is an economics theory by Garrett Hardin, according to which individuals, acting independently and rationally according to each one's self-interest, behave contrary to the whole group's long-term best interests by depleting some common resource.

Intuitively, this seems correct that self-interest would lead to over use under the assumption that others would do the same.

Have there been any strong counter theories that argue that people would act in a "sub-optimal" way for the betterment of the community?

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    $\begingroup$ Some people will always act altruistically, the question is whether enough will. Perhaps a better question would be whether there is evidence/theories which say whether enough people will act against their self interest. $\endgroup$ Nov 19, 2014 at 10:03
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    $\begingroup$ Considering the invisible hand of adam smith, we can gain a long run benefit exactly because people will act in their self interest. $\endgroup$
    – Lex
    Nov 19, 2014 at 10:15
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    $\begingroup$ As an entirely pedantic point: theories cannot be invalidated by other theories, only by empirical evidence. $\endgroup$
    – Ubiquitous
    Nov 19, 2014 at 11:22

3 Answers 3


As you implied, the tragedy of the commons was the standard theory in Economics. This is no longer the case. However--and this is an important point--rejection of this one-size-fits-all approach to public resource management did not come from the emergence of new theories; rather, it resulted from actually studying real-world outcomes. In fact, it's for her work doing exactly this that Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize in Economics. As described by the Nobel committee:

[B]ased on numerous empirical studies of natural-resource management, Elinor Ostrom has concluded that common property is often surprisingly well managed. Thus, the standard theoretical argument against common property is overly simplistic. It neglects the fact that users themselves can both create and enforce rules that mitigate overexploitation. The standard argument also neglects the practical difficulties associated with privatization and government regulation.

Since these case studies there has been theoretical work--some of it by Ostrom herself--in order to reconcile the discrepancies between the previous theory and the observed outcomes (developed using the theory of repeated games in Non-Cooperative Game Theory).

However, what's most interesting to me is that this theory was rooted in actual observations and not the other way around (i.e. first the theorized behavior followed by real-life observations).

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The wikipedia quote you've given rather misses the point of the tragedy of the commons.

The "tragedy" refers specifically to Garrett Hardin's hypothesis that destruction of the commons (that is, a prolonged over-exploitation that massively reduces or terminates the commons' economic value) was inevitable: he quotes Alfred North Whitehead - "the remorseless working of things" and "the futility of escape".

The work of the late Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom is important because it documented several cases where the destruction had been avoided: she refuted the inevitability. There are particular circumstances where it can be avoided.

So that's not to say that destruction of the commons doesn't happen. It does happen, all over the world, constantly. But it's not inevitable.

The specific conditions where she found the commons being protected, were that there was a group of custodians, numbering from a few up to about 150 (and I don't imagine that I'm the first to speculate that it's not a coincidence that this is close to Dunbar's Number). The custodians were capable guardians who could meet together to discuss the management of the commons, understood the economic costs and benefits, and were able and willing to create rules of custodianship of the commons, to adapt the rules to changing circumstances, and to enforce the rules. These have been characterised by various authors as covering architecture, agency, adaptiveness, accountability, allocation and access.


Just to add one dimension that the very concise answers from @SteveS and @EnergyNumbers appear to me not to stress to the degree I feel it is important:

The moment we introduce the time-dimension, the concept of "self-interest" changes fundamentally: to joke a bit, we become altruists towards our future selves. And since depletion of common resources can only happen intertemporally, there is no point in discussing the matter in a static framework.

Then, the length of the time-horizon becomes important. If individuals have too-short a time-horizon, their behavior starts to resemble a "one-off" decision, and then the "tragedy of the commons" emerges. As the horizon becomes more long-term, individuals become willing to commit -for example, commit to accept the existence of custodians (see @EnergyNumbers answer), and thus restrict their own possible actions (due to the guardianship actions of the custodians).

This aspect once more makes the issue a matter of degree: how long-term is our time-horizon. One can see this theoretically also, even in a non-cooperative game-theoretic framework: if the "game" becomes a repeated game, then even famous frameworks like the Prisoner's Dilemma may obtain new solutions: here cooperation (in the abstract sense) can be sustained if the discount factor is not too high. Translation: if the importance we give to the future, for our own sake, is high enough.

If we factor-in other ways humans plant roots into the future (like having children, or the observed existence of various collective identities), we can start to understand why common property appears "surprisingly well-managed" -and not so surprisingly, after all.


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