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The Tragedy Of The Commons Essay

3320 words - 14 pages

All over the world, the newspapers announce almost weekly a story about the threatened destruction of a valuable natural resource. In June of 1989, for example, a New York Times article focused on the problem of overfishing in the Georges Bank about 150 miles off the New England coast. The population of fish is now only a quarter of what it was during the 1960s. Although everyone knows what the problem is, those concerned cannot agree towards a solution. The main problem in this case -and in many others- is how best to limit the use of natural resources so as to ensure their long-term economic viability. Some people recommend that the state control most natural resources to ...view middle of the document...

The tragedy of the commons occurs mainly because people pursue their goals with the means available to them; this idea has been most frequently and fruitfully applied to environmental concerns. Communal resources are available to everyone, so everyone has an economic incentive to use them, but no one has an equal incentive to husband the resources. Public realms, such as the atmosphere or ocean waters, have seen considerable overuse at the hands of various private parties. In democratic societies, the disposition of resources depends on the degree of concern for the resources or for the uses to which they can be put. There have been various suggestions to explain why the “commons remorselessly generates tragedy”. One frequently mentioned reason is human greed: beings will always take advantage of free resources beyond what would be wise and prudent. Yet, it is not necessary to posit greed or self-interest in order to understand the tragedy of the commons. It’s merely to understand that people tend to be dedicated to their various projects. As James E. Chesher puts it: “If an artist, scientist, merchant, or farmer is given the authority to make use of materials that supposedly all are entitled to use, it will by no means be necessary for such a person to be needlessly and even recklessly eager to gain wealth or other benefits in order to exploit them to the fullest possible extent”.

What the real tragedy is about
The problem of the commons is not that people use the resources to which they have access, but that within that realm, there is no appropriate regulatory or coordinating mechanism that enables appropriate husbanding or maintenance of those resources. Nevertheless, there is a paradox concerning that individually rational strategies lead to collectively irrational outcomes. This premise seems to challenge a fundamental faith that rational human beings can achieve rational results. But, can we generalize over human behavior concerning collective action? The truth is that not only humans, but every-day situations are subject to unpredictable verdicts. Human action is an amalgam of different choices and decisions that lead to very different results; therefore, there can’t be a generalized rule or a unique way to solve the problems concerning common pool resources, for example.

The tragedy of the Commons, like the prisoner’s dilemma and the logic of collective action, are closely related concepts in the models that have defined the accepted way of viewing many problems that individuals face when attempting to achieve collective benefits. The common denominator in these situations is free riding. Whenever a person cannot be excluded from the benefits that others provide, each person has an incentive not to contribute to the joint effort, but to free-ride on the efforts of others. The free-rider problem leads to a less than optimal level of provision of the collective benefit. Garret Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons is intended to...

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