Garrett Hardin’s “The Tragedy of the Commons” is one of the most frequently cited articles of the 20th century. Hardin argued that a valuable resource must be owned. If it is left unowned, it will be consumed and not replenished. There appeared to be two kinds of owners: (1) private individuals or corporations, and (2) governments. There was heated debate about the relative advantages and dangers of each, but the consensus held that one or the other type of owner ought to own everything that matters.
As a result, reformers (governments, international lenders, and experts) turned forests, grazing lands, fisheries, and other resources all over the world into property: either privatizing and marketizing these assets, or else nationalizing them. In many cases, the results were devastating. As Elinor Ostrom (2000) writes, “In many settings where individuals have managed small- to medium-sized resources for centuries, drawing on local knowledge and locally crafted institutions, their disempowerment led to a worsening of environmental problems rather than their betterment.” This was no small matter: human famine and the extinction of natural species were sometimes the price.
Part of the problem was conceptual, an assumption that if something is property, it must be state or private property. As Ostrom and colleagues have shown, a community can own an asset. That does not mean that a government that represents the community owns it, as my town of Belmont, MA (an incorporated municipality) owns Clay Pit Pond. Nor does it mean that a nonprofit corporation manages the asset as the community’s trustee. The community can actually own the resource. It needs rules, norms, traditions, or processes that limit the asset’s use and/or cause people to replenish it.
Those rules may include large doses of individual property rights. For instance, you may own your fishing boat and nets and any fish that you catch. But the community owns the fishery if only approved people can fish there and if each can only take a certain number of fish. If those rules are local government ordinances, we may say that the community owns the fishery and uses the government as one of its instruments of control. (It will almost certainly use other tools as well, including private vigilance.) In many cases, the rules are effectively enforced without official government endorsement. Violence and threats of violence may never be necessary, either, if local ties are strong and outsiders are rare.
An asset can belong to a community in a meaningful sense if it is true collective property, or if it is divided among private owners who collectively regulate its use, or if it belongs to just a few official owners who depend upon and are accountable to the whole community. For instance, many houses of worship all over the world belong to the state or a private party who holds title to the land and the building. Yet those religious institutions are genuinely owned by the community in the sense that they could never move or survive without the community’s support.
Opening one’s eyes to the possibility of community ownership that is not state or private ownership provides new options for managing resources, allows us to evaluate and appreciate traditional arrangements, and calls attention to the impressive skills and values that people employ all over the world to manage common assets.
Thomas Dietz, Nives Dolsak, Elinor Ostrom, and Paul C. Stern (2002) “The Drama of the Commons,” in Elinor Ostrom, ed., Drama of the Commons, pp. 3-26.
Ostrom, Elinor (2000), “Crowding Out Citizenship,” Scandinavian Political Studies (23)1
Ostrom, Elinor (2004) “Covenants, Collective Action and Common Pool Resources” in Karol Edward Soltan and Stephen Elkin, eds., The Constitution of Good Societies.