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  • Peter Francis Fenwick

The tragedy of the commons

Elinor Ostrom, Nobel Prize winner

John Gapper, in an opinion piece, in The Australian Financial Review on Friday, 1 December 2017, “Facebook’s fight for the common good”,quotes extensively from Garrett Hardin, whom he describes as an ecologist and philosopher.

Unfortunately, Hardin’s discredited theories are hardly a sound basis for developing an understanding of the problems of community standards facing Facebook.

In 1968, microbiologist Garrett Hardin, a University of California professor whose specialty was population control, wrote a paper in Science entitled The Tragedy of the Commons in which he argued that community ownership of land, forests, and fisheries led inevitably to ecological disaster. It has been embraced as gospel by those who see state ownership and regulation of natural resources as imperative.

Hardin’s essay was based on a self-fulfilling assertion about the commons in rural England. He asserted that the rational action of individual peasants would inevitably lead to overstocking and hence the destruction of the shared pasture. He provided no evidence at all to support his arguments and they have been consistently challenged by other academics. Fortunately, this has led to some positive research from workers in such diverse fields as the mathematics of game theory, biology, anthropology, economics and the social sciences.

In Elinor Ostrom’s study of the tragedy of the commons, Governing the Commons, she draws on this wide range of disciplines to analyse the behaviour of people sharing a common resource.

The Economist, 30 June 2012 summarized her work as follows:

Years of fieldwork, by herself and others, had shown her that humans were not trapped and helpless amid diminishing supplies. She had looked at forests in Nepal, irrigation systems in Spain, mountain villages in Switzerland and Japan, fisheries in Maine and Indonesia … All these cases had taught her that, over time, human beings tended to draw up sensible rules for the common-pool resources. Neighbours set boundaries and assigned shares, with each individual taking it in turn to use water, or to graze cows on a certain meadow. Common tasks such as clearing canals or cutting timber were done together at a certain time. Monitors watched out for rule-breakers, fining or eventually excluding them. The schemes were mutual and reciprocal, and many had worked for centuries.[1]

Ostrom’s research findings - that we all benefit more in situations where there is mutual trust, where reputation is important and enduring, and where there is reciprocity between participants - have relevance far beyond the problems of the tragedy of the commons.

John Gapper might find more fertile ground here for developing solutions for Mark Zuckerberg than in the musings of Garrett Hardin who had clearly strayed well outside his area of expertise.


[1] Obituary. © The Economist Newspaper Limited, London (June 2012)

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