I often wondered why The Tragedy of the Commons was such a recent article. After all, it’s not as if the idea is especially difficult or new. Sometimes an obvious idea does the rounds and gets put in in asides and so on but someone has the chutzpah to write it up as their own idea. And away they go, repackaged in a quotable meme form (Tragedy of the Commons, Hardin, 1968) – a much cited article is born.
(I feel similarly about “The market for Lemons” although I admire its author much more. The market for lemons goes back at least to none other than Nicolaus Copernicus who anticipated Sir Thomas Gresham’s law by around 70 years. “Bad money drives out good”.)
Anyway, apropos of the Tragedy I was amused to see this write up of a particularly ferocious (and in some ways unreasonable) attack on it in the Journal of Economic Perspectives.
Ian Angus provocatively re-considers The Myth of the Tragedy of the Commons.
Since its publication in Science in December 1968, The Tragedy of the Commons [by Garrett Hardin] has been anthologized in at least 111 books, making it one of the most-reprinted articles ever to appear in any scientific journal. . . . For 40 years it has been, in the words of aWorld Bank Discussion Paper, the dominant paradigm within which social scientists assess natural resource issues. . . Its shocking to realize that he provided no evidence at all to support his sweeping conclusions. He claimed that the tragedy was inevitablebut he didnt
show that it had happened even once. Hardin simply ignored what actually happens in a real commons: self-regulation by the communities involved. . . . The success of Hardins argument reflects its usefulness as a pseudo-scientific explanation of global poverty and inequality, an explanation that doesnt question the dominant social and political order. It confirms the prejudices of those in power: logical and factual errors are nothing compared to the very attractive (to the rich) claim that the poor are responsible for their own poverty. The fact that Hardins argument also blames the poor for ecological destruction is a bonus. The website of Monthly Review, August 25, 2008, at http://www.monthlyreview.org/mrzine/angus250808.html