Organizational Capacity Building

Candace LaRue and Associates

More Wisdom from Elinor Ostrom

on June 13, 2012

Garret Hardin wrote “The Tragedy of the Commons” in support of private property rights. In the commons, he argued, there was a free for all. Because no one had an incentive to protect the whole commons, everyone would over graze their sheep, and the pasture would be degraded. He used the example of the actual commons in England, with details in his economic parable about putting up fences, etc.

The problem? He obviously knew nothing about the history of the commons he used in his example. (what? An economist who doesn’t know history?). The commons, sheep grazing and all, was typically very well-managed and pastures lasted for generations. Much longer, actually, than pastures in industrial farming.

Hardin did have a point, however – resources with no property management tend to be degraded. But, these resources are open access resources, not the commons. Open access resources are nominally open to everyone, but in reality used by the most rich and powerful (that would be one of Jim Boyce’s lines). Common property, unlike open access resources, are managed by a community. If you over graze your sheep, I will call your mother and she will make you stop (of course there are also more complicated, formal versions of common property management as well).

In Hardin’s mind, and for most economists, the only two alternatives are private property or state property, but common property is another real, already existing form of property rights that has been around for thousands of years and can work very well to protect important resources in some settings.

Understanding how the commons can be managed effectively is important in urban, low-income communities because safe public space is a much needed resource (see the work of RJ Sampson). Even when public space is owned by a private owner, it is also a commons to some degree – like a coffee shop where everyone hangs out. It is owned by someone, but common property norms help protect its public space features.

Seems like common sense, right? Well, it is, but only because people like Elinor Ostrom have explained it so clearly.

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