The Tragedy of the Commons not so tragic after all.

Elinor Ostrom
Elinor Ostrom

Elinor Ostrom became the first woman to win the Nobel in Economics earlier this week. Her work refuting the “Tragedy of the Commons” validates basic anarchist and Left Libertarian principles. For those of us trying to look beyond the magic of the market and the inherent problems with government regulation her work provides some great insight into what successful management of the commons takes.

1. Clarity in the boundaries and rules. Lawful people that we are, anarchists have a great appreciation for the minimization of unnecessary conflict. When people know what is and isn’t acceptable behavior to others, it is easier for us to adapt our actions in accordance with those expectations. Of course, the idiots who spout nonsense such as “ignorance of the law is no excuse” are inevitably government prosecutors: the rest of us understand that common law provides its greatest service by clarifying expectations so that people can interact cooperatively and peacefully.

2. Local input and acceptance of these rules. Friedrich Hayek, co-winner of the first Nobel Prize in Economics, would be proud. The closer someone is to a situation, the more things they’ll know that others do not. Central planning, even were it performed by angels, would not produce good rules because of information problems. The fact that angels AREN’T in charge is, of course, another problem. Ostrom is well versed in “public choice” theory and knows that government regulators are humans with their own information AND incentive problems.

3. Active involvement of those most likely to be using the commons in the monitoring of use. The ones who care the most need to either directly involve themselves or else delegate to monitors who are accountable to them. Again, central planners, especially government officials who are accountable, if at all, to a much wider variety of people than those most interested in the commons in question and for a larger variety of activities than just the management of specific commons, cannot effectively monitor them and be held accountable. If the people who most need the commons can’t fire those who fail to protect it, the tragedy is inevitable.

4. Methods for dispute resolution. Central to anarchist theory is the idea that parties with disputes will agree to third party mediation or arbitration of those disputes. One of the inanities of government is that any dispute between the government and private persons is adjudicated by the government itself. The evolution of common law went far beyond the ad hoc choice of an arbiter to arrangements that let parties know in advance how disagreements would be resolved. Disputes are inevitable: dispute resolution methods are necessary, and do evolve.

5. Sanctions for violators. Naturally, those found liable by arbiters or, worse, those who declare themselves “outlaws” by refusing any third party arbitration may need to be encouraged to comply by proportional sanctions. Common law anarchists emphasize the value of non-violent enforcement through ostracism and boycott, most effective against those who are part of the local community, but recognize that some cases may require force against violators. Clearly, the arsonist may need to be restrained physically to protect the forest. Still, when local acceptance and monitoring of rules is strong, violations are rare, usually accidental, and typically resolved without the need for violence.

This will hopefully be the final nail in the coffin of Garrett Hardin’s overly simplistic “Tragedy of the Commons.” Ostrom provides us with clear empirical evidence that people can successfully manage commons without the profit motive and without government interference.


  1. Oh dear bob, you’re beginning to sound more like an anarchist as time goes by.
    Those involved are best suited to resolve their problems, sounds dreadfully revolutionary in a profit motive, authoritarian, society doesn’t, yet how obvious to any sane and rational mind.

  2. Nobel Prize or no (and the Prize being a bourgeois institution anyway we take it for what it is), this is complete and utter crap.

    No offense.

    • Eli,

      Anarchist or not, I’m a huge fan of your work and do what I can to promote it. I take the Nobel with a grain of salt, but Olstrom’s work is interesting and provides more ammunition for what Libertarian Socialists (both Marxist and Anarchist) have been saying for a long time.

      No offense taken, Eli. Keep up the great analysis of the media.

      • I wasn’t familiar with her until Buddhagem’s post. From what I have read since, it seems there is considerable common ground here between Socialists and Marxists.

  3. ‘Ostrom’s work is important to socialists because it shows that it is possible to run economic systems without private property or state control.

    Marx famously argued that socialism would lead to communism based on the commons, where democratic planning would put people in control.

    Ostrom has shown that even in a capitalist society such commons can be made to work.’

    From my article in tomorrow’s Morning Star, a daily Marxist newspaper in the UK.

    Ostrom’s win is a major victory, especially given here strong support for ecology, the indigenous and commons.

    More here

  4. At the risk of offending all of the above, it appears to me that her work transcends labels. As a traditional conservative, I find nothing to quibble with in it. It could also be straight out of the societal-restructuring work of Ariyaratne or Thienvihan. And the Catholic-trumpeted Priciple of Subsidiarity is but thinly disguised.

    The only modern political stripe I can think of that her work is likely to offend is now-ascendant big-government liberalism and its neo-liberal Neocon ilk.

    OTOH, maybe I’m an anarchist and didn’t know it. This is the first time I’ve seen anarchism expressed as more than a fantastical view of either social darwinism or unabashed optimism.

  5. I find it funny that everyone refers to Hardin’s article, since its true purpose was to advocate government-forced birth control on the population. Hardin is little more than Thomas Malthus in 20th Century clothing.

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