What is the Commons Tragedy?

Tragedy of common goods

William Forster Lloyd developed the concept of the tragedy of the commons in his essay 1833. The tragedy of the commons refers to the economic theory that describes a system of shared resources in which individuals act according to their personal interests instead of working towards a mutual interest. In this situation, the shared resources (common goods) become overused, leading to their collapse. In modern times, the concept became famous after an article was written by an ecologist Garret Hardin in 1968. The shared resources defined in the tragedy of the commons include the atmosphere, water resources and machinery.

Practical application

The tragedy of common goods is applied in many situations, in particular with regard to sustainable development and the judicious use of shared resources. Discussions regarding global warming, climate change and environmental protection use the concept to analyze the effects and contribution of selfish human behavior to the deterioration of natural resources. The principle also applies to the analysis of behaviors and trends in the fields of psychology, sociology, politics, anthropology and taxation. In sustainable development, supporters suggest that the theory can be used as a self-regulatory measure in which each interested party is aware of the consequences of overfishing.

The dilemma of the municipalities

The dilemma of the municipalities is a social situation in which the long-term results resulting from the use of common resources conflict with the short-term self-interest of individuals. Many factors influence the dilemma of the municipalities as psychological, strategic and structural elements. Researchers on the common dilemma consider these factors when examining the use or disuse of common resources. Subsequently, they draw conclusions and recommend solutions to problems arising from the use of common goods.


Some scientists criticize the tragedy theory of common goods as a means of propagating private property. Hardin argued that a rational individual in the face of the common goods dilemma will seek to increase his assets. According to critics, rational people will first analyze the pros and cons of their actions on long-term effects rather than short-term effects before making decisions.

Solutions for the tragedy of common goods

In his description, Hardin explains that, while using common resources, each user tries to maximize his positive gain. All these small individual percentages add up and cause negative results. Since freedom exists in the municipalities, privatization has been recommended as the only way to make every person responsible for the consequences of their actions. Government regulation on the use of common resources such as fishing is also recommended as a practical solution to the tragedy of common goods. Another suggested solution is the cooperation between users of the commons on how to use the resources available through collective restrictions.

Relevant examples

A real event that involves the collapse of the commons due to an excessive exploitation includes the fall of the Great Banks of Terranova fishing due to the decline of the numbers of cod. The extinction of bluefin tuna in the black and caspian seas, despite the regulatory measures, is an example of the tragedy of the commons. Global warming, the dead zone along the Mississippi in the Gulf of Mexico, traffic congestion, population growth and unregulated deforestation are also examples.

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