Once again on ‘The myth of the Tragedy of the Commons’: a reply to criticisms and questions

A reply to criticisms and questions about my article on Garrett Hardin’s influential essay.

By Ian Angus

November 3, 2008 -- The response to my recent article “The Myth of the Tragedy of the Commons” (also posted at Links at http://links.org.au/node/595) has been very encouraging. It prompted a small flood of emails to my inbox, was reposted on many websites and blogs around the world, and has been discussed in a variety of online forums.

The majority of the comments were positive, but many readers challenged my critique of Garrett Hardin’s very influential 1968 essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons”. A gratifying number wrote serious and thoughtful criticisms. While they differed in specifics, these responses consistently made one or more of these three points:

  • How can you say that the tragedy of the commons is a myth? Look at the ecological destruction around us. Isn’t that tragic?
  • It doesn’t matter if Hardin’s account of the historical commons was wrong. He wasn’t writing history: he just used the commons as a model, or a metaphor.
  • Hardin wasn’t rejecting all commons, just “unmanaged commons”. A “managed commons” would not be subject to the tragedy.

This article responds to those points. Except under the first heading, I’ve tried to avoid repeating arguments I made in the first article, so if you haven’t already done so, I encourage you read it here first.

How can you say that?

Some respondents described ecological horrors and catastrophes — vanished fisheries, poisoned rivers, greenhouse gases, and more — and then said, in various ways, “The destruction of the world we all share is a terrible tragedy. How can you call it a myth?”

This question reflects an understandable problem with terminology. When Hardin wrote “The Tragedy of the Commons”, he wasn’t using the word “tragedy” in its normal everyday sense of a sad or unfortunate event. I tried to explain this in my article:

“Hardin used the word ‘tragedy’ as Aristotle did, to refer to a dramatic outcome that is the inevitable but unplanned result of a character’s actions. He called the destruction of the commons through overuse a tragedy not because it is sad, but because it is the inevitable result of shared use of the pasture”.

So the point is not whether ecological destruction is real. Of course it is. The point is, did Hardin’s essay correctly explain why that destruction is taking place? Is there something about human nature that is inimical to shared resources? Hardin said yes, and I say that’s a myth.

But it was only a model!

During the 1970s and 1980s, Hardin’s description of the historical commons was so thoroughly debunked by historians and anthropologists that he resorted to denying that he ever meant to be historically accurate. In 1991, he claimed that his account was actually a “hypothetical model” and “whether any particular case is a materialization of that model is a historical question — and of only secondary importance”. (Hardin 1991)

Similarly, an academic who called Hardin “one of the most important thinkers of the 20th century” wrote that his description of the traditional commons was a “thought experiment”, so criticism of his historical errors is irrelevant (Elliot 2003).

But Hardin offered no such qualification in his 1968 essay, or in the many books and articles he wrote on related subjects in the next 20 years. Quite the opposite, in fact.

In a 1977 essay, for example, Hardin referred explicitly to “the way the common pasture lands of England were converted to private property”, by parliamentary Enclosure Acts in the 1700s and 1800s. These Acts, he wrote, “put an end to the tragedy of the commons in this aspect of agriculture”. That’s a very explicit statement about historical facts — there’s nothing “hypothetical” about it (Hardin 1977: p. 46).

So Hardin’s later claim that historical facts don’t matter was an attempt to rewrite his own history. He only claimed the story was “just a model” after it had been thoroughly disproved.

But it was only a metaphor!

In his 1968 essay and many subsequent articles, Hardin lumped together very different social situations and problems, labelled them all “commons” and claimed that the “tragedy of the commons” explained them all. He argued that the destruction of the historical commons explained the collapse of fisheries, overcrowding in US national parks, air and water pollution, “distracting and unpleasant advertising signs”, overpopulation and even “mindless music” in shopping malls.

While his account is often labelled a metaphor, Hardin didn’t say that those situations were similar to commons. He said they were commons, and he repeatedly referred to their problems not as similar to but as aspects of the tragedy of the commons.

If all of those things were commons, then the fact that he was wrong about the historical “tragedy” completely undermines his core argument.

In reality, however, none of the examples he mentions are “commons” in any meaningful sense. Shopping malls and billboard locations are private property, with access controlled by the owners. National parks are managed or mismanaged by government bureaucrats. Unmanaged shared resources like air and water are being polluted by giant corporations, not by “rational herdsmen”. And Hardin’s claim that population growth results from a “commons in breeding” is just plain bizarre.

There’s no evidence that Hardin meant the “tragedy” to be seen as “only a metaphor” — but if he did, it was a very poor metaphor indeed.

He really meant the `unmanaged commons'

Several people suggested that Hardin was really criticising “unmanaged commons”, and thus presumably favoured a “managed commons”. The problem with that idea is that Hardin clearly thought that “managed commons” was a contradiction in terms.

In his original 1968 essay Hardin wrote that a commons “if justifiable at all, is only justifiable under conditions of low-population density”. As population grew, “the commons has had to be abandoned in one aspect after another”. The “tragedy of the commons” could only be avoided by abandoning the commons: either by converting it to private property, or by imposing external controls that effectively eliminate the sharing of resources.

He repeated that argument many times in later articles and books. In 1985, for example:

“A commons is a resource to which a population has free and unmanaged access: it contrasts with private property (access only to the owner) and with socialized property (access to which is controlled by managers appointed by some political unit)”. (Hardin 1985: p. 90.)

In short, Hardin defined the commons as unmanaged — so the claim that he was arguing for “managed commons” doesn’t make sense. When he argued for management, he was arguing for enclosing the commons.

He was more explicit in an article written to mark the 30th anniversary of his original essay: “A ‘managed commons’ describes either socialism or the privatism of free enterprise.” (Hardin, 1998.) Since he equated socialism with bureaucratic state control, it is clear that for him the “managed commons” was not a commons at all.

Several readers said they understood that Hardin later changed his mind, that he said the tragedy only occurred in “unmanaged commons”. One pointed to this sentence, in a speech Hardin gave in 1980:

“As a result of discussions carried out during the past decade I now suggest a better wording of the central idea: Under conditions of overpopulation, freedom in an unmanaged commons brings ruin to all”. (Hardin 1980.)

Note, however, that Hardin only says that this is “better wording”. There is nothing in this restatement of his “central idea” that doesn’t appear in the original essay. Far from recanting, he was trying to be more explicit.

In any event, as we’ve seen, five years later Hardin still defined the commons as unmanaged, so it’s evident that he only added the word “unmanaged” in 1980 to clarify his argument, not to change it.

(Nor did the addition of “under conditions of overpopulation” add anything to what he wrote in 1968. Since Hardin believed that overpopulation was the biggest problem in the Third World countries where most commons-based communities exist today, that qualification just reinforced his general anti-commons argument.)

What does `unmanaged' mean?

While Hardin’s later articles did not revise his original argument fundamentally, they did expand it in a way that provides an important insight into the way he thought about commons-based communities. In the 1980 speech quoted above, he accepted that an unmanaged commons can work if (a) “the informal power of shame” is used to keep people in line and (b) “the community does not exceed about 150 people”.

As evidence for these apparently arbitrary requirements, he cited the example of Hutterite religious communes. Between 40,000 and 50,000 people live in such communities in western Canada and the US: they hold all property in common, and communities normally divide in two when the population reaches 150 or so.

The issue of size is a red herring: many shared resource communities are much larger than the limit the Hutterites have chosen. But what’s truly remarkable here is that Hardin classified Hutterite colonies as unmanaged, with the “informal power of shame” as its only means of staving off the tragedy of the commons. Compare that to this account of Hutterite governance in Canada:

“Each colony elects an executive council from the managers of various enterprises, and together with the colony minister, the executive deals with important matters that will be brought before the assembly (all baptised male members — in effect, men 20 years of age and older). Although women have an official subordinate status, their informal influence on colony life is significant. They hold managerial positions in the kitchen, kindergarten, the purchase of dry goods, and vegetable production”. (Ryan 1999: p. 1125)

Obviously, the word “unmanaged” simply doesn’t apply to Hutterite communities. The fact that Hardin thought it did shows how limited his conceptions were. Anything that wasn’t either privately owned or controlled by the state was, by definition, “unmanaged”.

As Derek Wall points out, such blindness to non-capitalist social structures is widespread in mainstream social science:

“The commons is important because it provides a way of regulating activity without the state or the market…. Throughout history, the commons has been the dominant form of regulation providing an alternative almost universally ignored by economists who are reluctant to admit that substitutes to the market and the state even exist”. (Wall 2005: p. 184.)

Hutterite colonies don’t just share resources — they democratically organise and govern their communities to manage those resources. That was also true of the historical commons in Europe, and it’s true of Indigenous societies in many parts of the world today. As historian Peter Linebaugh writes:

“To speak of the commons as if it were a natural resource is misleading at best and dangerous at worst — the commons is an activity and, if anything, it expresses relationships in society that are inseparable from relations to nature”. (Linebaugh 2008: p. 279).

Hardin, like the economists Wall describes, looked at the world with capitalist blinders on. As a result, he couldn’t recognise a community-managed non-tragic commons when it was right before his eyes.


Angus, Ian. 2008. “The Myth of the Tragedy of the Commons”, Climate and Capitalism, August 28, 2008. http://climateandcapitalism.com/?p=513. Also at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal at http://links.org.au/node/595).

Elliot, Herschel. 2003. “The Revolutionary Import of Garrett Hardin’s Work”, http://tinyurl.com/5tokrk.

Hardin, Garrett. 1968. “The Tragedy of the Commons”, http://tinyurl.com/o827.

Hardin, Garrett. 1977. “Denial and Disguise”, in Garrett Hardin and John Baden, editors, Managing the Commons. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman and Company, pp 45-52.

Hardin, Garrett. 1980. “An ecolate view of the human predicament”, http://tinyurl.com/t98c.

Hardin, Garrett. 1985. Filters Against Folly, How to Survive Despite Economists, Ecologists and the Merely Eloquent. New York: Viking Press.

Hardin, Garrett. 1991. “The Tragedy of the Unmanaged Commons: Population and the Disguises of Providence”, in Robert V. Andelson, editor, Commons Without Tragedy:Protecting the Environment from Over-Population - A New Approach. Savage MD: Barnes & Noble.

Hardin, Garrett. 1995. “Extension of the Tragedy of the Commons”, http://tinyurl.com/bow6h.

Linebaugh, Peter. 2008. The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Wall, Derek. 2005. Babylon and Beyond: The Economics of Anti-Capitalist, Anti-Globalist and Radical Green Movements. London: Pluto Books.

Ryan, John. 1999. “Hutterites”. in James Marsh, editor, The Canadian Encyclopedia, Year 2000 Edition. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, pp. 1124-1125.