The Tragedy Of The Commons

The tragedy of the commons is at an end, thanks to the writings of the late Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom. But the well-deserved funeral has not been celebrated, yet. Thus, some consequences of the now disproved theory proposed by Garrett Hardin in his famous 1968 article are still to be fully digested. Which is urgent, because some major problems we face in our age are very much related to the commons: climate change, the issue of privacy and freedom on the Internet, the choice between copyright or public domain in scientific knowledge.

Of course, the commons can be over-exploited. But what's wrong with Hardin's theory is the notion of "tragedy": by using that term, Hardin implied that a sort of destiny condemned the commons to be depleted. In Hardin's opinion, a big enough set of rational individuals that are free to choose will act in a way that will inevitably bring to the exhaustion of the commons: because free rational individuals will always maximize their private advantage and collectivize the costs. Ostrom has demonstrated that this tragic destiny doesn't need to be true: she found all over the world an impressive number of cases in which communities run the commons in a sustainable way, getting the most out of them without depleting them.

Ostrom's factual approach to the commons came with very good theory, too. Preconditions to the commons' sustainability were, in Ostrom's idea: clarity of the law, methods of collective and democratic decision-making, local and public mechanisms of conflict resolution, no conflicts with different layers of government. These preconditions do exist in many historically proven situations and there is no tragedy there. Cultures that understand the commons are contexts that make a sustainable behaviour absolutely rational.

Hardin's approach, which he developed during the Cold War, was probably biased by ideological dualism. The commons didn't fit, as Ostrom writes, in a "dichotomous world of 'the market' and 'the state'." In a context in which "private property and deregulation" versus "state owned resources and regulation" were seen as the only two possible solutions, the commons were seen as a losing system condemned to become an idea of the past.

But the Internet has grown to become the biggest commons of knowledge in history. It would be very difficult to argue that the Internet is a losing system. In the last twenty years, the commons of the Internet have changed the world. Of course, the Internet can be over-exploited, by private gigantic companies or by state owned secret services. But there is no tragic destiny that condemns the Internet to be ruined. To save it, we can restart by understanding and preserving its clear rules, such as net-neutrality, its multi-stakeholder governance, its transparent way to enforce those rules and governance. Wikipedia has demonstrated that it is possible.

There is no tragedy: there are conflicts though. And they can be better understood by embracing a vision that is open to Ostrom's notion of polycentric governance of complex economic systems. The danger of a closed vision that only understands conflicts between state regulation and market freedom seem to be even more catastrophic when thinking at climate change and other environmental issues. When we think about the environment, the commons idea seems to be a much more generative notion than many other solutions. It is not a guarantee for a solution, but it is better point to start. The theory of "the tragedy of the commons" has now clearly become a comedy. But it can be a really sad comedy if we don't finish with it and move on.