Take 2 -Property and Community: the Truth and the Lies of the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’.

I’ve not read the original article on “The Tragedy of the Commons” that David refers to in this post , but it sounds very familiar, and David’s post brought back memories.

One version of it was discussed in some of my university economics classes: with the conclusion drawn that property rights gave people incentives to look after the long-term health of whatever ‘commons’ happened to be under consideration (usually fisheries, from memory). On the other hand, it was argued, the absence of property rights gave people (individualistic rational maximisers) incentives to plunder a resource as quickly as they could, because ‘if you don’t, somebody else will’, which would lead to destruction of the resource and thus to socially sub-optimal outcomes (e.g. less fish in total in the long-term).

It’s a narrative that has some credibility because, I believe, there is a kernel of truth at its core: in some circumstances, just such a tragedy will indeed occur. The qualification is the key to understanding the strengths and limitations of the story as a guide to policy-making.

The occurrence of the tragedy rests on the assumption of two premises: first that there are no property rights in existence, and second that there is some kind of breakdown or alienation of society such that ‘a few’ people (enough to damage the resource, or to trigger a run of plundering) feel willing to and are able to exploit that absence of property rights.

If we look at what property rights are, the connection of the first condition to the second will become clearer.

Probably, how most contemporary Western people imagine property rights is largely shaped by the dominance of capitalism. In this context, property is something someone owns. That means that they can use it pretty much how they like, and they can sell it to someone else.

Of course, in practice, there are limitations on how we use property. Minimally, it is generally illegal to obviously and directly murder or cause bodily harm to other people with it. You might find other restrictions too: maybe you can’t play your stereo loud late at night, or you can’t do earthworks on a piece of land such that your neighbour’s place slides down the bank and collapses.

If we look at property globally and historically, we find that it is a rather different thing in different places and times. One important limitation that often exists in non-capitalist societies is that certain kinds of property are not saleable. Other limitations are of time and scale – you may have a use-right to fish on a certain stretch of riverside, at certain times of year, for a certain kind of fish. You may have the right to harvest from a piece of land, so long as you reside on it. But what property always has in common in all these variations, is that it is social permission to use a certain resource or thing in a certain way (sometimes called ‘use rights’).

Property, then, is always socially defined and socially constructed. In that sense, Hardin is right: if there is no effective social structure controlling the use of a resource, there is a grave danger of it being exploited to the point of destruction.


That doesn’t mean that the only solution to a commons tragedy is the imposition and allocation of saleable contemporary Western style property rights of the kind favoured by corporations, capitalists, and their supporters. And it doesn’t mean that capitalist style enclosure – be it as brutal as 18th century enclosure or in more subtle modern bureaucratised form – is our only option.

The first key to the solution of a tragedy of the commons is effective social control of the use of the resource (The second, of course, is wise social use of that control). If you want to engage in slippery sophistry, you might call that social control ‘coercive social arrangements’ and thus connote an authoritarian solution, but it is quite possible to imagine such arrangements being worked out by democratic and/or consensual processes, and policed with the minimal force that is required.

When we tell the narrative this way, we can see that many of the current commons tragedies are the product of the absence of appropriate communities: in particular, of global communities capable of making decisions, capable of dealing with actors with a global reach (e.g. transnational corporations) and capable of dealing with actions and effects with a global reach (e.g. open seas fishing, greenhouse gas emissions).

When we tell the narrative this way, we put the creation and oversight of property (use rights) in a social context that doesn’t automatically privilege the rich and powerful of our world. We put property in a context where the language and considerations of fairness, justice, and future generations have a place. We re-concretise property rights as bounded things that belong to certain places and times, rather than as just another object to be measured as a monetary abstraction.


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