The "Tragedy of the Commons" was invented by a white supremacist based on a false history, and it's toxic bullshit

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Whatever the guys opinions were on race/gender/etc… the Tragedy of the Commons is real. Our entire environmental movement is an example of a case where an unaccounted side effect has a disastrous effect on the worldwide population.


But this isn’t what actually happened to the Commons: they were stable and well-managed until other factors (e.g. rich people trying to acquire even more land) destabilized them.

Yes, exactly, that is the tragedy of the commons.

I don’t understand why you call TotC toxic bullshit; the lesson I take from it is that we need to regulate things like pollution and the environment so that a few people don’t ruin it for the rest of us.


exactly what I was thinking


Agreed. The concept is indisputable, it’s just where he ran with it. If Newton had concluded that we should try purge the under-earth demons who cause gravity, it would be weird but his math would still be sound.


Also, this guy didn’t invent either the term or the concept. It goes back to the early 19th century.


It’s toxic as hell, once you realize what’s been done with it. The underlying strategy of privatizing public services and spaces (AKA “the commons”) undergirds ALL of World Bank and IMF policy, as well as neoliberal policy in general.

Please feel free to look up the Cochabamba Water War for a perfect illustration why this is never a good thing, no matter how it’s presented on paper. Seriously, try to find ONE country that actually, truly benefited from World Bank meddling of this type; good luck with that…!


That was going to be my comment too. In undergrad sociology I was taught that the shepherd grazing was an allegory for greedy private interests raiding public lands, dumping toxic waste and ignoring externalities. Blame the Bundys if the allegory has come roaring back all too literally.


The essay IMO doesn’t necessarily build an argument in favor of privatization. In fact I had always understood it as an example in which private actors individually pursuing their own rational self-interest (the classic economic model of people) leads to a poor outcome. It is true that putting a price on resources and rationing access to them by price is one way to prevent over-exploitation. But it is certainly not the only way: public ownership and regulation would do that too.


The essay may not do so as well as many think (including me), but that doesn’t negate the simple fact that it IS used as part of the justification for the privatization of the commons.

Thing is, the justification doesn’t matter. At all. The real secret is that privatization of the commons is just about always a terrible idea. Similarly, privatization of government services in general follows the same rule. The dismantling of the GPO is a perfect example: turns out, giving all of the work of the GPO to small, private companies — that cannot buy materials in the same bulk as the government and have a profit motive, of course, unlike government — did NOT improve quality, speed, or costs. Not even a little, tiny bit.

And that’s how it goes, just about every time. It’s so bad, that when the consequences aren’t dire, it’s presented as a “win”! Hell, many idiots in Congress still want to privatize other portions of government. Oy, veh…


Just wait until word breaks out that Ronald Coase wasn’t principally about railroad trains setting fields of hay on fire!

Here, Indonesia has the commons of the river as a disposal system. The river is neither (meaningfully) regulated, nor (enforcably) owned – and you need it to be one or the other, at least.


Basically, if the market is not factoring in one of the resources being used (because it’s free), then you run into problems when that resource isn’t unlimited.

How you solve this problem is up for debate. You can try to make the market factor in the previously free resource, but we’ve had limited success with that in the past. (See: Carbon Cap & Trade) Direct regulation, which will indirectly affect the market anyway, is generally easier. (See: Traditional EPA regulations on dumping, etc…)

The biggest problem is applying the same standards to EVERY user of the commons, since there is a tremendous incentive to cheat. You can regulate your own fishing industry just fine, but it won’t be sufficient if there are dozens of other countries who don’t follow along and let their fishing boats sweep the seas clean. And then your citizens will be buying the fish from the cheaters because it’s cheaper (markets at work!) and in the end the problem continues to grow unabated.


According to Wikipedia, the term was actually coined in 1833


It’s struck me that the people who bemoan the tragedy of the commons – and offer privatization of the commons as a solution – are, in fact, the cause of the tragedy of the commons.


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I would respectfully argue that the fact that a racist asshole used the concept of Tragedy of the Commons to argue for racist asshole concepts no more disproves the concept that the uses that the abortion known as “social Darwinism” has been put to by racist assholes disproves evolution. The concept is not degraded by contact with someone of this ilk, IMHO.


I see people arguing that the tragedy of the commons is real and giving contemporary examples. I think that’s missing the point being made by Mildenberger.

“The commons” was an actual thing that had a place in law. It was land that was usable by all, and not privately owned by anyone. The tragedy of the commons is the idea that people will overuse communal resources. That is what Mildenberger is calling into question.

Of course the meaning of “the tragedy of the commons” has shifted since the commons disappeared. That under a private ownership model private owners will despoil lands that don’t belong to them is indisputable. But that’s not the tragedy of the commons at the time Hardin was writing. The commons that Hardin was talking about don’t exist anymore, and the tragedy of the commons was the argument for getting rid of them.

That was the spurious argument, that people would not take care of things owned by the community, but would only take care of things owned by themselves.

To the extent that people feel that things are still owned by the community (e.g. public parks), people do take care of them.


Inclosure Acts, anyone? They rather sucked.


Hm, then he must have been funded by the creepy old Pioneer Fund (a gorram deductible charity FFS!) which later funded the punchable Richard Spencer. Check… Bingo!

The so-called “Alt-Right” are just the old master race fucks with new logos.



Perhaps my professors were anomalous, but any time the ToftC was referenced or discussed in any of my classes, it was in the context of needing sensible and sustainable public regulation of the commons, lest private interests engage in the race to bottom in depleting its resources. Were other people taught that it was a thought experiment justifying privatization?