The commons is an ancient cultural and economic organizing principle. Before the agricultural revolution, each clan or tribe staked out a territory and all members had the right to hunt and gather within it. They often did so cooperatively. This worked well as long as their territory could be protected, the commons was large, and the relative population was small.

More broadly, the “commons” is any resource that is shared by a group of people.  Resources, such as the air we breathe, the water we drink, and receiving waters we use for disposal of waste, are examples. In many parts of the world, new land for farming, grazing land for livestock, fish from the sea, and wood supply for fuel and housing are still treated as commons. The following discussion about “the commons” was adapted from Harding (2002).

What is the Logic of "the Commons?"

The “logic of the commons” is that each household has the right to take resources from and put wastes into the commons. To accumulate wealth, each household strives to acquire one unit of resources or to dump one unit of waste, while distributing one unit of cost across all of the households with whom the commons is shared. Thereby, the gain to the household appears large and the cost very small. Some households accumulate wealth more rapidly than others and this in turn, gives them the means to utilize an even larger share of the commons.

The fallacy in the logic of the commons lies in the failure to recognize that all households are attempting to do the same thing. Thus, on average, one unit of gain for a household actually produces a net one unit of cost for each household. However, selfish households accumulate wealth from the commons by acquiring more than their fair share of the resources and paying less than their fair share of the total costs.  Ultimately, as population grows and greed runs rampant, the commons collapses and ends in “the tragedy of the commons” (Hardin, 1968).

The logic of the commons also includes a much more sinister element. As an example, consider the following episode:  “After the Civil War, the cattlemen in Edwards County, Texas, overstocked the land, and when settlers started showing up in the 1880s, the cattlemen’s answer was to crowd even more animals onto the land. At a stockmen’s meeting, they produced: ‘Resolved that none of us know, or care to know, anything about grasses, native or otherwise, outside of the fact that for the present, there are lots of them, the best on record, and we are after getting the most of them while they last.’ (Duncan, 1994).”

Thus, we have cases of deliberate destruction of the commons to not only get the wealth out of it before someone else does, but also to leave nothing for others. Often, this has involved the ruin of other common resources along with the ones sought after.  The history of the quests for gold and whales are other examples. These kinds of episodes reflect instances of pure greed.

The Concept of "the Commons" and how it can Result in Tragedy

The principle of the commons breaks down when resources decline and/or the pool of users grows too large or is too concentrated. Consider the following example:

Before the agricultural revolution, a commons tragedy was rare. It usually involved declining resources due to natural events, such as the ice ages. The tragedy of the commons became more and more frequent with the agricultural revolution and subsequent population growth. Its frequency has been accelerated by the industrial revolution and the resultant population explosion. Now, the commons includes the whole planet, both land and water.

An apparent solution to avert the collapse of the commons was the introduction of private ownership. Common lands were parceled up into small tracts, each owned by a household. If a household greedily destroyed its plot, its demise was its own fault. However, as population grew, each new generation of households was left with a smaller and smaller portion of the original holdings. There was still the opportunity for some households to accumulate wealth by acquiring land from others, one way or another. Thus, private ownership did nothing to control greed; it merely shifted it to a new arena. The number of landless households grew rapidly, each one descending deeper and deeper into abject poverty.

Why does "the Commons" continue?

Commons other than land were not so easily parceled up. How could anyone own water, rain, wind, air, or the open ocean? The concept of the commons still prevails today for fishing rights in coastal waters; roads and highways for travel and commerce; a standing military for defense of territory; groundwater in the high plains; and rivers and creeks that traverse Kansas.