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Tragedy of the commons

What is the tragedy of the commons? How does privatisation and government control affect the availability and access to resources?
© Adam Smith Center, Singapore

After 15 years of studying police departments, Lin’s next research project took the academic world by storm and won her a Nobel prize.

The second research project of Lin’s that we are going to discuss this week concerns ‘the tragedy of the commons’. Coined by American ecologist Garrett Hardin, the tragedy of the commons refers to a situation where common resources such as natural resources are helplessly exploited to the point of destruction. This occurs because when common resources are not owned by any individual or entity in particular, every individual has the incentive to exploit as much of the common resource as possible for himself before someone else does.

For instance, fishermen who want to capture as much fish as possible deplete fish stocks to unsustainable levels and shepherds who use green pastures to feed their sheep bring about over-grazing.

Herd of cows of a field Image credit: Leon Ephraïm on Unsplash

As such, economists believed that external rules and regulations governing the use of common resources had to be imposed on local resource users who were otherwise incapable of escaping the tragedy of the commons on their own. These rules and regulations either came in the form of privatisation or government control. In the former, exclusive rights to extract common resources such as fish, timber and water are parcelled out to individual owners, in the hopes of creating a new incentive structure that prevents over-exploitation. In the latter, the government gains ownership of the common resource and puts in place rules to preserve the resource.

© Adam Smith Center, Singapore
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Environmental Management: A Bottom-Up Approach to Policy Implementation

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