2How Tragic Is the Commons?

In the belief system called economics, it is an article of faith that commons are inherently tragic. Almost by definition, they are tragic because they are prone to overuse. What belongs to all belongs to none, and only private or state ownership can rescue a commons from the sad fate that will otherwise befall it.

The standard reference for this belief is an article that appeared in Science in 1968 called “The Tragedy of the Commons.”1 Though the author, Garrett Hardin, was a biologist, his article was strangely lacking in scientific inquiry. It was more like economics—an extrapolation from assumptions rather than an investigation of reality.

Hardin assumed that all commons are free-for-alls. He bid his readers to ...

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