• Matthew Smylie

Solving the tragedy of the commons

Updated: May 29, 2020

Hardin warned about the 'tragedy of the commons'- so how do we best protect common pool resources such as fisheries?

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Overfishing has led to a rapid decline in fish populations, with oceans losing ‘more than 90% of large predatory fish’ (Myers & Worm, 2003: 282). This poses a threat to the continued existence of many marine species, but also humanity’s access to valuable food sources. This post will explain the ‘tragedy of the commons’ using the example of fisheries and investigate how these issues can be resolved. I begin with a description of the tragedy of the commons, as outlined by Hardin (1968). I then investigate Hardin’s prescriptions for overcoming the tragedy, finding these to be relatively ineffective in the case of fisheries. I then consider Ostrom’s critique of Hardin, finding that in the correct conditions, local communities are able to self-regulate their fisheries, but that self-regulation is not possible when we consider fisheries as a ‘global common resource’.

Hardin and the tragedy of the commons

Central to Hardin’s concept of ‘the tragedy of the commons’ are ‘common pool resources’; goods which are simultaneously rivalrous and non-excludable; including forests and fisheries. These resources are not owned by anyone and are open to being used by all. Hardin (1968) postulated that with growing populations and rational, self-interested agents, these common pool resources would be over-exploited. Therefore, freedom for individuals to act independently, and use the resource as they see fit, leads to degradation and ‘brings ruin to all’ (Hardin, 1968: 1244).

The tragedy of the commons can be explained using the case of fisheries. Here, we assume that there is a body of water with a fixed capacity for fish production (Berkes, 1985: 199). As fishermen operating at the body of water catch more fish, other fishermen are attracted to the area. As the number of fishermen increases, each individual is faced with a choice of how many fish to catch. Rational, self-interested fishermen would choose to catch as many fish as possible- this is because the utility of catching a fish and selling it later on outweighs the cost of overfishing, since the cost is shared across all of the fishermen (Hardin, 1968: 1244). In this scenario, the fishermen would try to catch as many fish as possible, each knowing that if they do not, the others will catch the fish left in the body of water. The lack of restraint on each fisherman’s actions eventually leads to a tragedy of the commons; overfishing occurs and the fish are unable to renew their numbers at a quick enough rate; leading to extinction. This is seen in numerous real-life cases, including the rapid depletion of tuna fish (MacKenzie et al, 2009: 25).

Hardin paints a pessimistic picture of leaving common pool resources in the hands of rational, self-interested agents. Contra Adam Smith, who saw self-interest as a socialising force, Hardin sees self-interested interaction as the problem of collective governance rather than the solution (Dutta & Lane, 2017). In turn, Hardin’s Malthusian view of the world leads him to argue that ‘only the replacement of the system of the commons with a responsible system of control will save the land, air, water and oceanic fisheries’ (Hardin, 1974). This leads to only two solutions that can effectively manage common pool resources; privatisation or state control. In both cases, coercion, control and incentives are used to shape and influence people’s self-interest to ensure that they act in the interest of the collective good (Dutta & Lane, 2017).

Solving the tragedy of the commons

In terms of state control, the tragedy of the commons can be overcome through state coercion, whereby governments and international bodies control and regulate natural resource systems such as fisheries. States can assign fishing rights to certain areas and impose quotas which carry punishments for non-compliance, thus coercing nations and fishing companies into containing the amount of fish that they catch (Ehrenfeld, 1972: 322-323). However, the success of state control depends on a myriad of factors including; state access to accurate information, ability to monitor/ enforce effectively and administration costs (Ostrom, 1990: 10). In many cases, states are unable to fulfil all of these criteria and cannot effectively manage fisheries. This has been highlighted by the failure of the EU’s common fishery policy where 88% of fish stocks are overfished due to a lack of transparency in regulations, insufficient control and a widespread culture of non-compliance (Khalilian et al, 2010). As a result, it is recognised that a state’s capacity to undertake coercive conservation is limited (Agrawal, 2003: 246).

Conversely, academics including Hardin (1974) and Welch (1983) have argued that systems of private property, whereby the commons are privatized and owned by specific individuals or groups, are necessary for avoiding the tragedy. Under privatization, they argue that those who hold the property rights take on responsibility for managing the resource in an efficient and sustainable manner because it is in their self-interest to do so. However, such systems run into many issues, especially in the case of fisheries.

One major obstacle to privatising fisheries is imposing private ownership when those currently using the commons are opposed to privatization (Ostrom, 1990: 12). Resistance against the creation of a set of property rights can block such a system from being created, with fisherman around the globe framing privatization as ‘theft’ and bringing legal action against the imposition of individual transferable quotas (Carothers & Chambers, 2012: 51-52). Further, it is questionable as to whether systems of property rights are even possible in the case of fisheries, where the allocation of property rights to an area of the ocean is meaningless due to the migratory nature of fish (Wyman, 2008: 517). Finally, in instances where privatization mechanisms are developed, it is not always certain that the tragedy will be alleviated. This is exemplified in the case of Blue Whales; the owner of the property right may prefer extinction over preservation when a species is a slow re-producer because it enables them to exploit the present value and maximise profits (Clark, 1973: 630).

In response to Hardin, Ostrom (1990) suggests that common pool resources can be managed through local governance structures whereby communities self-regulate. This is because Ostrom saw human behaviour as more complex than Hardin’s assumption of immediate self-interest (Meagher, 2013). People are able to work together and restrain selfish impulses in order to maintain the sustainable use of the resource; this view emphasizes culture and context in understanding and overcoming the tragedy of the commons. The abilities of small communities to self-regulate fisheries has been evidenced in numerous cases, most famously in Alanya where local fishermen developed a highly effective, self-policing system to minimise incentives to compete for the most productive spots (Leal, 1998: 232). Similarly, self-governance can be as simple as imposing social pressure on agents, exemplified in Cornwall where local Oyster fishermen used ‘peer-group pressure to limit fishing efforts and the yield’ (Berkes, 1985: 200).

However, such local governance structures are far from generalizable, since specific cultural values and traits such as trust, reciprocity, and shared norms often determine their success (Araral, 2014: 14). Similarly, self-regulating systems are often developed to fit a certain set of sociological conditions; these conditions can change dramatically as technological, social and economic progression alters the way in which local communities interact with the common resource (Dietz et al, 2003: 1908), meaning that rules must evolve continuously. This links with the fact that self-regulation is often most successful ‘in traditional societies in which economic activities are embedded in social relationships’ (Berkes, 1985: 204). As such, when fisheries become commercialised, we tend to observe a break down in community self- regulation; this was seen in Nicaragua where the commercialisation of turtle meat significantly increased the number of turtles harvested by locals.

Further, whilst there are many factors that determine the success of small-scale governance structures in protecting local fisheries, the issue is complicated when we consider fisheries as a ‘global commons resource’. Such global resources are much harder to govern because they fall outside ‘the jurisdiction of any country or groups of countries’ (Araral, 2014: 15). This is the case with fishing because fish are migratory in nature and the oceans are open and not controlled by any individual state or body (Hays & Scott, 2013: 748). In such cases, several governance issues are met which are absent with local commons governance, including; difficulty in holding monitors to account, ensuring that all relevant groups are able to participate in decisions, and designing effective sanctioning and conflict resolution mechanisms (Stern, 2011: 221-222).

Treaties are often used as the governance solution for global common resources (Araral, 2014: 16), evidenced in the case of fisheries with the creation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS). This treaty aims to facilitate communication, protect the marine environment and ensure the fair and efficient use of sea resources, including fish (United Nations, 1982). However, whilst UNCLOS was intended to facilitate cooperation between states in order to protect the seas, this goal has proven hard to attain. Firstly, the treaty creates a route through which selected states can exploit and benefit from the commons whilst other, usually developing states, are excluded (Clancy, 1998: 611). Similarly, both the USA and China have refused ‘to bind themselves with UNCLOS for strategic and security reasons’ (Araral, 2014: 16) which weakens the functions of the treaty. These points highlight how global politics and power relations can block the effective governance of global commons.


To conclude, the tragedy of the commons occurs when an expanding population of rational, self-interested agents fails to constrain its use of a common pool resource such as fisheries, leading to its eventual destruction. Whilst Hardin suggested that privatisation or state control was required to avert these tragedies, such routes have proved to be ineffective, especially with mobile resources like fish. Conversely, Ostrom inspired a vast literature which shows that people are able to self-regulate common resources. However, such regulation depends on many factors and is applicable only to local, small-scale commons; these mechanisms are unavailable when trying to overcome the tragedy of global commons.


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