Tragedy of the commons

From The Jolly Contrarian
Jump to navigation Jump to search
The Devil’s Advocate


In which the curmudgeonly old sod puts the world to rights.

Index — Click ᐅ to expand:

Get in touch
Comments? Questions? Suggestions? Requests? Sign up for our newsletter? Questions? We’d love to hear from you.
BREAKING: Get the new weekly newsletter here Old editions here

The dilemma of a communally-owned, limited resource where users are incentivised to over-use the resource (because if they don’t, someone else will) leading to depletion of the shared resource through their collective action, despite that being in no-one’s best interest. British economist William Forster Lloyd coined the term in an essay in 1833 in which he cited the effects of unregulated grazing on common land. The concept became widely known as the "tragedy of the commons" over a century later after an article written by Garrett Hardin in 1968.

It is of a piece with game theory and the (single round) prisoner’s dilemma, whereby, whilst it is in both parties common interest to co-operate, because of the skewed pay-offs if they don’t, both are incentivised to defect.

In the modern world there is a view that the digital commons, being effectively unlimited, is not affected by the dilemma, so we can all tweet as many hot takes as we like without ruining anyone else’s ability to tweet their own hot-takes.

Very good, thoughtful books about it are Lawrence Lessig’s Code: Version 2.0 and Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks.

See also