I recently read the original 1968 article The Tragedy of the Commons, by Garrett Hardin, that article that coined that phrase. I had never read this before, despite the fact that that phrase is used all the time. I’d always thought of it as a seminal work in economics, but it isn’t about that at all. One of the biggest surprises for me was that it’s not really about commonses; it’s about human population control, & the discussion of commonses is just a vehicle for making his main point. (His main point is that humans must rigorously control population growth, or as he puts it, relinquish “the freedom to breed.”)

The other surprise for me is the realization of just how mis-used the term “commons” is. Or, maybe not mis-used so much as used to mean 2 subtly but significantly different things. On the one hand “commons” is used to mean a resource that is owned and managed collectively, essentially a commune; on the other hand it’s used to mean a resource that is owned and managed by no one, essentially anarchy.

In a 1998 follow-up article, Hardin suggests that the greatest fault with his original paper “was the omission of the modifying adjective ‘unmanaged.'” That’s what I’m talking about. In his original paper he discusses commons as anarchic, though he uses the example of the English commons, which was essentially a commune, so he’s inconsistent there. As an example of the anarchic commons, I submit Easter Island, circa 900-1400 AD. If we believe Jared Diamond, then Easter Island is barren today in no small part because the Easter Islanders overused the land & cut down all the trees. And since there was no central or communal land ownership on Easter Island, there was no authority to tell them to stop (even if they had realized that they should have).

It seems to me that a commons – both kinds – is a public good: that is, something difficult to produce for profit. The information commons is even more specific than that: it’s a non-rivalrous public good, in that information does not suffer from scarcity. Indeed, information seems to be anti-rivalrous, if such a thing is even possible.

I also read two other articles:

Free Riding on Gnutella, the article that coined the phase “tragedy of the digital commons”. This article makes the case that the tragedy of the commons exists online, and that free-ridership in file-sharing systems is a behavior that leads to it.

The Tragedy of the Digital Commons, which argues that the tragedy of the commons exists online, yes, but not as conceived in the Gnutella article. They give 4 reasons for this, the most compelling of which to me are the combination of #1&2: use of a file-sharing system involves no destruction of the resource, so at worst the existence of a free rider on the system is a “missed opportunity” for improvement of the system. Instead, the tragedy of the digital commons is evident by looking at viruses: their very existence in the “ecosystem” is destructive of both other objects in the ecosystem (e.g., files) and the ecosystem itself (e.g., bandwidth).

Hardin makes the statement that “the commons, if justifiable at all, is justifiable only under conditions of low-population density.” This is pretty much exactly a point that Diamond makes in Collapse (which I’m finally reading): that resource exploitation won’t become a problem if the amount of exploitation is less than what the resource can regenerate, but that regeneration tipping point is often crossed when the human population grows too great. (Think tree growth, etc.) But it seems to me that this situation only necessarily applies to the anarchic commons, due to the lack of regulation. It may apply to the communal commons, but it not necessarily: if there’s any regulation at all, individuals’ resource use can be, well, regulated. A communal commons can at least be kept in a steady state, though the same issue of missed opportunities for improvement applies.

So where have I ended up with this? Am I advocating universal Socialism here? Maybe I am. All I meant to do, though, was to pose the question: How can communal commonses be established, & a culture of individual use be fostered, such that the resource is not terminally exploited, & even improved by some or all users? The open source community seems to have figured out how to do this. Of course, they started out with the advantage of dealing in an anti-rivalrous good. How can this model be applied to rivalrous goods?