Commons Problems

In 1968 Garrett Hardin's seminal article “The Tragedy of the Commons” appeared in the journal Science. In this article he describes the commons problem as a situation in which a particular resource must be shared among individuals who would like to use the resource for personal gain. To illustrate the scenario, Hardin used the famous example of herdsmen in a public pasture. Working cooperatively, herdsmen can share and benefit from the land equally by keeping equal-sized herds. The herdsmen, however, are assumed to be rational and seek shortterm, economic self-maximization, meaning they seek the greatest profit as soon as possible. Therefore, instead of keeping an equal-sized herd, a given herdsman will add one more animal to his herd and personally realize all the gains from the sale of that additional animal. The negative outcome of overgrazing the land will influence the herdsman only marginally as a fraction of the total loss of productivity of the land, which is shared among all herdsmen. Consequently, according to the tragedy of the commons, when commons decisions are left to individuals, the resource will be depleted. In an alternative, but related, scenario such as pollution, the most self-serving and often least group-serving outcome will occur. As Hardin states, “freedom in the commons brings ruin to all” ( 1242 ).

Interestingly, though the herdsmen example is the most commonly referenced portion of Hardin's article, the original piece framed the issue of the commons primarily in terms of overpopulation. Overpopulation creates commons problems when societal demands exceed the carrying capacity of the Earth's resources. In any case the commons is considered a common-pool resource, with particular management challenges.

Commons problems are also challenging in that they lack technical solutions. Hardin's discussion of technical solutions, based on a commentary of nuclear war by Jerome Wiesner and Herbert York ( 1964 ), parallels the twenty-first-century concept of “wicked” (very difficult) problems ( Weber and Khademian 2008 ). Both concepts describe the absence of clear, practical solutions to societal problems due to the complexity of the problems and the values intertwined in responses.


Since the publication of Hardin's article, scholars have worked prolifically to expand the concept of the tragedy of the commons and examine ways in which it can be addressed or managed. In particular, the political economist and Nobel Prize laureate Elinor Ostrom dedicated a great deal of her research to commons-related issues, their management, and potential solutions. In Ostrom's 1990 book Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, the author described two other models, in addition to the tragedy of the commons, that are often used to understand and formulate decisions around commons issues: the prisoner's dilemma and the logic of collective action.

The prisoner's dilemma is often used to formalize Hardin's early model by using game theory logic ( Dawes 1973 ). This model explains why two individuals may not cooperate in a given situation, even if it is in their best interest to do so. (The herdsmen example works in this model as well, but the model is usually described in terms of prisoners.) In this scenario two individuals, person A and person B, have been detained by the police, who are investigating a crime. The two suspects can betray each other and receive an equal punishment of two years in prison, or both can remain silent and each receive one year of prison. But if person A betrays (or, in the terms of game theory, “defects” from) B while B remains silent, person B will receive a full sentence of three years whereas A goes free; the converse is also true. Individuals are always expected to defect or use the betrayal strategy, as the personal gain would be greater in this scenario. Even if individuals have perfect information and know what the other person has said, theorists believe each person will choose to defect.

The logic of collective action suggests that if a group's goals align with an individual's goals, the individual can be persuaded to work toward the group goal. Mancur Olson ( 1965 ) objects to this conceptualization, suggesting it would only hold true when a person could not benefit from the group's outcomes unless he or she contributed toward those outcomes. This objection emphasizes the issue of free riding, which arises in all conceptualizations of the commons problem.

Hardin stated that mutual coercion, or laws that limit people's actions agreed on through sanctions, is needed to protect common-pool resources. Similarly Ostrom ( 1998 ) asserted that managing the commons is the core justification for the existence of the state. When the state manages the commons, it takes responsibility for organizing, coordinating, and monitoring activities related to common-pool resources. Because of the diverse needs and values of constituents and the lack of clear solutions, governmental management of common space can be highly contested. If politics describes who gets what, when, and where ( Lasswell 1950 ), then managing commons resources is a profoundly political act.

Alternatively the idea behind private, profit-based, collective-action solutions is often called the theory of the firm. In this theory an entrepreneur identifies a situation in which the return achieved through a given activity can be greater when it involves interdependent relationships of individuals rather than only individuals competing in an open market. The latter action will lead to the demise of the commons at the expense of individual gain. The focus of the collective arrangement is efficiency, as participants in this type of cooperative activity can leave at any time, and their only incentive to stay is to yield a profit larger than they could achieve independently.

The assumptions that support these commons models come from rational choice theory, which assumes individuals act in ways to maximize their self-interest when they have perfect information. Ostrom ( 1998 ) offered a strong critique of these assumptions, stating that these conditions do not always exist in real life. Groups of individuals, the state, and firms cooperate in various ways and steward the commons to avoid depleting resources or overburdening one group, as in the case of pollution. Although the idea that individual action in an open market will lead to the depletion of the commons is true, alternative responses to individual action are available as well. Moreover, the actions of one member in a commons space may negatively influence others and thus lead to cooperation or rules mutually agreed on.


Ostrom ( 1998, 2000 ) analyzed experiments and case studies that examined the management of common-pool resource (CPR) issues and challenged some long-held assumptions. A CPR represents a specific type of commons that is a natural or manmade resource and is large enough that it would be costly to exclude potential beneficiaries from accessing the resource benefits. Some examples of CPRs include fishing grounds, watersheds, grazing areas, bridges, and canals.

Ostrom found that core relationships are extremely important in efforts to manage CPRs. Within these relationships, establishing trust, a positive reputation, and reciprocity creates a cyclical and reinforcing situation in which cooperation is possible around commons issues. Although this point may seem obvious, it is an important one to make because it emphasizes that people may enter into agreements related to the use of commons that are not aligned with their short-term, self-interested goals, as the rational choice models suggest.

In case studies researchers found evidence that successful, enduring, self-governing CPR institutions share several traits. These groups have clearly established rules and regulations associated with use or access to the resource. Specific roles for monitoring and appropriating resources are established, and people in these roles are held accountable to each other. People who violate the rules and regulations are subject to graduated sanctions. Conflict mechanisms are in place to help resolve disputes between people who use the commons, people who manage them, and public officials. Finally, the right of a given group to organize around a CPR is not challenged by an external government authority.

Commons problems arise because the sum of individual demand for resources sometimes exceeds the common supply of those resources. Therefore communities of all sizes must continue to grapple with the long-term outcomes of individuals making short-term choices. Without management or oversight from some entity, the resources will be depleted. The state is often assumed to hold this oversight role; however, private firms and, as Ostrom found, groups of individuals may serve this function and may see better results than can be achieved through state management.

SEE ALSO Collective Action ; Common Good ; Communitarianism ; Community ; Free Rider Problems ; Institutional Analysis and Development (IAD) ; Logic of Appropriateness ; Ostrom, Elinor .


Dawes, Robyn M. “The Commons Dilemma Game: An N-Person Mixed-Motive Game with a Dominating Strategy for Defection.” ORI Research Bulletin 13 (1973): 1–12.

Dawes, Robyn M. “Formal Models of Dilemmas in Social Decision Making.” In Human Judgment and Decision Processes: Formal and Mathematical Approaches, edited by Martin F. Kaplan and Steven Schwartz, 87–108. New York: Academic Press, 1975.

Hardin, Garrett. “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Science 162, no. 3859 (1968): 1243–8. .

Lasswell, Harold D. Politics: Who Gets What, When, How. New York: P. Smith, 1950.

Olson, Mancur, Jr. The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965.

Ostrom, Elinor. “A Behavioral Approach to the Rational Choice Theory of Collective Action: Presidential Address, American Political Science Association, 1997.” American Political Science Review 92, no. 1 (1998): 1–22.

Ostrom, Elinor. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Weber, Edward P., and Anne M. Khademian. “Wicked Problems, Knowledge Challenges, and Collaborative Capacity Builders in Network Settings.” Public Administration Review 68, no. 2 (2008): 334–49.

Wiesner, Jerome B., and Herbert F. York. “National Security and the Nuclear-Test Ban.” Scientific American 211, no. 4 (1964): 27–35.

Emily B. McCartha
North Carolina State University