Matt Ridley: The Tragedy of the Commons Myth

by David Bier on December 15, 2011

in Blog

Government-enforced environmental protection is often based on the notion that the environment is subject to a ‘tragedy of the commons,’ a famous concept in economics whereby goods that “cannot be privately owned” are abused because no one individual has an incentive to conserve. Therefore, conservation must be forced by a state. Matt Ridley in his brilliant book The Origins of Virtue provides a useful correction to this traditional account.

The Origins of Virtue was released in 1996

Scott Gordon, an economist concerned with fisheries, in 1954 wrote, “Everybody’s property is nobody’s property. Wealth that is free for all is valued by none because he who is foolhardy enough to wait for its proper time of use will only find that it has been taken by another. The blade of grass that the manorial cowherd leaves behind is valueless to him, for tomorrow it may be eaten by another animal; the oil left under the earth is valueless to the driller, for another may legally take it; the fish in the sea are valueless to the fisherman, because there is no assurance that they will be there for him tomorrow if they are left behind today.’ ….

An authoritarian biologist named Garret Hardin rediscovered this idea in preparing a lecture on population growth, and named it the ‘tragedy of the commons,’ which term has stuck. Hardin’s aim was not to try to solve the problem but to argue for the necessity of restrictions on the right to breed. ‘Coercion,’ he wrote, ‘is a dirty word to most liberals now but it need not forever be so.’

To make his point, Hardin chose the example of medieval common land, which was widely believed to have been ruined by overgrazing, in comparison to enclosed land. “The rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another… But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein lies the tragedy. 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.”

In the abstract, this was true: free-for-alls are disastrously vulnerable to free-riding. The problem is, Hardin was wrong about grazing commons. Medieval commons were not disastrous free-for-alls. They were carefully regulated communal property, just like the lobster fisheries of Maine. True, there were relatively few written rights and not many obvious rules about who could graze them or cut coppice-wood on them. To an outsider, they looked like a free-for-all. But try adding your cattle to the common herd and you would soon discover the unwritten rules.

In practice, the English medieval common was a complex spider’s web of jealously guarded property rights held under the supposedly benevolent umbrella of the lord of the manor, who owned the common but only on condition that he did not interfere with the rights of the commoners. There were rights of common pasturage, estovers, turbary, pannage, piscary and common in the soil. Translated, these were rights to graze, cut wood, dig turf, turn out pigs to eat acorns, catch fish, or take gravel, sand or stone. And these rights were privately owned by individuals. As the manorial system broke down, commons came in effect to be owned jointly by those who possessed these rights in common, rights that were extinguished, converted or trampled upon in the process known as enclosure. But commons were never free-for-alls.

To this day, many of the Pennine moors of the north of England retain the traditional medieval rule known as ‘stinting’. Each sheep being grazed on the moor is free to go where it wishes, but the shepherd is not free to add any extra sheep. He possess certain number of ‘stints’, each of which entitles him to graze one ewe, and that sheep must be one that is born on the moor and ‘hefted’ to a flock already there (a hefted ewe is one that knows its place and stays within a short distance of the same spot all year; an unhefted ewe will wander). The number of stints is, in theory, calculated to ensure that the moor is not overgrazed.

In the Middle Ages, most village commons were stinted this way. Now that stints are fully commoditized, subject to buying and selling for money, English commons are in effect partly privatized communal property. Much the same always applied to coppices in old English woodland: the rights to cut wood were owned. As Oliver Rackham, a historian of English forestry, has argued, ‘commoners are no fools; they are well aware of the Hardin problem; they see the Tragedy coming and act to avert it; they draw up regulations to prevent overexploitation by any one shareholder. The court rolls of English commons make it clear that such regulations existed and could be updated to meet changing circumstances.’

So it is nonsense to argue that just because something is communally owned it must suffer the tragedy of the commons. Common property and open-access free-for-alls are very different things. The old pre-enclosure English commons as a genuinely egalitarian place open to all is a nostalgic myth. Hardin was apparently unaware of this, and what he wrote was based on theory, not fact.

Once this confusion is out of the way, it becomes obvious that all sorts of commons problems are readily and frequently managed in sensible, virtuous, sustainable ways by local people who entirely lack the pretensions to be trained economists. Conversely, it becomes obvious that it is the very trained experts who often undo, destroy and wreck sensible arrangements for managing commons.

Ron Kilmartin December 16, 2011 at 12:49 am

” Conversely, it becomes obvious that it is the very trained experts who often undo, destroy and wreck sensible arrangements for managing commons. ”

Or the politicians, e.g., the California Legislature’s unending tampering with the electric power system.

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