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What Is Garrett Hardin's Simple Mathematical Argument for the Inevitability of “Tragedy of the Commons"?

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A term referring to the theory that, when a group of people collectively own a resource, individuals acting in their personal self-interest will inevitably overtax and destroy the resource. According to the commons theory, each individual gains much more than he or she loses by overusing a commonly held resource, so its destruction is simply an inevitable consequence of normal and rational behavior. In the study of economics, this idea is known as the free rider problem. Human population growth is the issue in which the commons idea is most often applied: each individual gains personal security and wealth by producing many children. Even though each additional child taxes the global community's food, water, energy, and material resources, each family theoretically gains more than it loses for each additional child produced. Although the theory was first published in the nineteenth century, Garrett Hardin introduced it to modern discussions of population growth in a 1968 article published in the journal Science. Since that time, the idea of the tragedy of the commons has been a central part of population theory. Many people insist that the logic of the commons is irrefutable; others argue that the logic is flawed and the premises questionable. Despite debates over its validity, the theory of the commons has become an important part of modern efforts to understand and project population growth.

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Writing in 1968 to a highly educated scientific audience, Garrett Hardin presented a compelling formulation of the population problem. He posed the population problem in stark terms. First, he examined the relation of population to resources, and concluded population must be brought under control. He then analyzed the dynamics that have caused population to swell. From this analysis, he proposed solutions. Certain aspects of his problem formulation still deserve careful consideration, but today, richer ideas for solutions complement those he proposed. Hardin rejected the wild hope that improved food production technology will allow an indefinite increase in population: "a finite world can support only a finite population." More specifically, we cannot hope to provide growth in both the material quality of life and population. Mathematically, both factors cannot be maximized at once; and biophysically, the calories available per person must decrease as population increases. Thus he invalidated Jeremy Bentham's goal of "the greatest good for the greatest number," and concluded "the optimum population is, then, less than the maximum." (Notably, also according to this logic, the strategy of decreasing population by increasing the "standard of living" (consumption), as predicted by the demographic transition model, might be reexamined.) But we have difficulty choosing to limit population, and choosing between which goods to pursue in a world that cannot provide for every different good because we have left the choice of "the good" entirely to individuals in our capitalistic society. We act as if individual choices will somehow solve collective problems such as population. Adam Smith's laissez-faire doctrine of the invisible hand tempts us to think that a system of individuals pursuing their private interests will automatically serve the collective interest. But applying this would be disastrous. Hardin employed a key metaphor, the Tragedy of the Commons (ToC) to show why. When a resource is held "in common," with many people having "ownership" and access to it, Hardin reasoned, a self-interested "rational" actor will decide to increase his or her exploitation of the resource since he or she receives the full benefit of the increase, but the costs are spread among all users. The remorseless and tragic result of each person thinking this way, however, is ruin of the commons, and thus of everyone using it. The straightforward application of the "herdsman" analogy to world population is that each couple expects to experience a large benefit from having another child, but only a little of the full social and ecological cost. Both Hardin's solutions, and their weaknesses, stem from things assumed in this model. His basic solution is that we must abandon the commons system in breeding (as we have already in food production and pollution - instances where we have used privatization and laws to achieve this)

People must no longer be free to add unlimited numbers of offspring to the total load on the earth's ecosystems. This sounds simple enough, but the key question is how this restriction is to be achieved. Hardin's rejection of some solutions stems from the individualistic assumptions of his metaphor. Particularly, he rejects appeals to conscience, because they would "select for" those without scruples over having more children. It is doubtful however that conscience is entirely genetic, nor perfectly transmitted by learning in families. Further, his assumption that were it not for "welfare," over-breeders would have to pay for their profligacy, runs in the face of evidence that parents whose infants die are paradoxically both more inclined to get pregnant again, and less likely to emotionally invest in their young. Welfare may indeed be part of solving the population problem. This is just one example where Hardin fails to differentiate reproductive behavior according to socio-economic conditions.

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This bleak picture, sketched out in an 1833 pamphlet by the British mathematician William Forster Lloyd, remained an obscure snippet of social science until 1968, when ecologist Garrett Hardin picked it up

In his profoundly influential paper, “The tragedy of the commons” (Hardin, 1986), Hardin wrote, “Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.” It has proved to be a powerful idea. To Hardin and others, the same grim logic was behind many of our biggest problems. Common resources, such as fisheries, forests, and even the air are threatened by selfish individuals and nations taking what they can, even though they know the resource will be wiped out if everyone does the same. Hardin’s solution was to cede our freedoms to the state, to be bound by “mutual coercion mutually agreed upon”. This brand of tragedy is particularly urgent today as our population and technology put more and more strain on limited nature. On the global stage, the greatest tragedy of the commons is climate change. Despite knowing of this looming threat, countries have delayed taking real action for decades, quarreling over costs and responsibility, failing to build trust, all the while continuing to pour greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Even in the wake of the Paris Agreement, the 2016 United States election has placed the status of a major player in doubt. Lacking any higher authority to rein in the selfishness of nations, are we doomed? Maybe not. As later researchers pointed out, the picture is more complicated than Hardin allowed. Although some resources are abused, others are often managed well without state intervention. Recent interdisciplinary work offers hope that the tragedy is not so inevitable after all. Instead, governments and institutions can design systems to help people control their selfish impulses, join collective schemes, and protect endangered resources. The global stage is more troublesome, but insights from game theory point to a possible way out of the climate change coma and other seemingly tragic situations: We just need to change the game that nations play (Ostrom E., 1990).

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In fact, slot limits that do not allow harvest of fish of intermediate size are also used. In this case, surplus young fish can be taken. With removal of small fish, intraspecific competition and recruitment into intermediate size lengths are lower, and growth rates of these fish are high. Slot limits could potentially create high production of large fish that are desirable for anglers. Managers commonly set seasonal limits. The most common of these is not allowing any taking of fishes while they are spawning. Fishes can be particularly vulnerable to angling pressure at this point in their life cycle. They often feed aggressively to assimilate energy needed for reproduction. Fishes that aggregate to spawn in highly predictable parts of the environment are most susceptible, and regulations to protect spawning fishes can be useful.

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Hardin (1986) The tragedy of the commons. The population problem has no technical solution; it requires a fundamental extension in morality. Science 162(3859):1243–1248

Ostrom E (1990) Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Cambridge Univ Press, Cambridge, UK).

Tang S (1994) in Rules, Games, & Common-Pool Resources, eds Ostrom E, Gardner R, Walker J (Univ of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, MI), pp 225–246

Agrawal A, Ostrom E (2001) Collective action, property rights, and decentralization in resource use in India and Nepal. Polit Soc 29:485–514.

Yang W, et al. (2013) Nonlinear effects of group size on collective action and resource outcomes. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 110(27):10916–10921.

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