A response to The Tragedy of the Commons

Essay Questions

1. What is a tragedy of the commons? Explain what the terms mean and what is
tragic about it
2. What is the preferred resolution Harding and proposes and what is the
solution that the student might want to propose
3. Produce an example other than what was discussed already of what the
tragedy is
4. More evaluative comments may be asked, since one may select to reject some
or all assumptions made by Harding (finitudes, rationality, etc.) this point I misinterpreted. Hardin proposes the equivalent of a population culling and I did not interpret him as being serious on this point. Without further delay…the essay!

One example of the same kind of commons that Hardin (1968) speaks of, is time. Time is something that every person has access to a limited amount of and makes use of it. People also wish for their time not to be wasted or have their time abused by others. It is, arguably, the most important ‘recourse’ for without time, nothing we can conceive of could take place, for everything existent is existent for a duration and therefore, time is of an essential nature to an object actually being in existence (Wells, 1895, p. 12).

In the text, Hardin mentions a pasture, which is considered public space, on which herdsmen keep cattle. If each herdsman is a rational agent then he will seek to maximise his potential gain by increasing the size of his herd. Seeing as there is no ground that can be held against one man doing it and each and every herdsman wishes to do the same, for instance; instead of an increase of 3 cattle from one herdsman, we have an increase of 30 cattle because all ten herdsmen are acting rationally.

If we accept the common definition of a rational agent, being one who wants to maximise his/her own utility (Schlüter and Theesfeld, 2010), then each and every rational agent wishes to make the best use of their very limited time. Unless our definition of rationality is wrong, by everyone pursuing to maximise their use of time (or maximising the size of their herd) it disadvantages everyone, even the so-called rational-agents. As each herdsman obtains more cattle the limited size of the pasture ends up being overgrazed, leaving no place for anyone’s cattle. The same argument can be made for time. By maximising my use of time I greatly hinder other people’s ability to use time to their best interest for the more time I take to get things done my way, the less time you have to do things your way (such as a student-lecturer relationship). The use (or rather abuse) of commons is tragic because there can be nothing wrong in the increase of one’s herd-size or the maximisation of time if there is nothing wrong with acting rationally, yet because everyone does it the end result is still unfavourable to all.

Speaking of tragedy is not the only thing Hardin (1968) does, he proposes a rather viable solution which is already in implementation. He suggests that we coerce the agents involved and make it more practical for them to not increase herd size, spew pollutants, or over occupy parking bays by doing things like laying heavy taxes on exceeding a set limit. Making it the case that it is cheaper for the farmer or the factory to filter the pollutants or maintain the pasture than it is for them to engage in activities that will be detrimental if engaged in by all (Hardin, 1968).

I think that this is a clever response to the problem, we only need to pressure someone a little into acting in a way that works better for the general population (of humans) in order to get them to make the rational choice of increasing herd size in proportion to the rate at which the pasture is replenished. I do not, however, think that this line of thinking, alone, does enough, for, practically speaking, people do not always act rationally and people tend to pursue the easy way out. For two herdsmen on a communal field, this would be to let the other pay for the replenishing of the soil and grass while you leech off of his efforts. For a production company, this would be to falsify the records of filtered pollutants or only filter out the bare minimum. The act of coercion via policy also only works if said policies are vigilantly policed.

Coercion is still a most viable course of action for us to take if we wish to ‘control’ the choices of others. By setting up the scene so that the only rational course of action is for the agents in question to play into your hand. Any good con artist or military strategist will tell you of the effectiveness of this tactic. To follow this line of thinking and apply it to the wasting of time in a way that does not present these errors, we would need to urge our society into a way of perceiving the world that results in the severe downward view on those who are considered ‘timewasters’. We can see that this is already somewhat present in western culture. Western banks are a prime example, their hours are terrible for any working individual and they seem to revel in delaying appointments and slowly fetching and going through files. They are attributed with a view of being manipulated by middle-aged Caucasian males that only ever act in their own interest, setting things so that the inflow of money is great while the outflow is poor. They have the view of being rational. For this reason of pursuing their own interests above all else banks are almost always seen in a negative light because they do not want the best for the agent holding the view. This view is evidence enough that our society is being urged in a direction that scorns timewasters and abusers of the commons.

Humans are not only rational beings but social beings. Therefore, the angling of society to view timewasters in a harshly negative light is one that can and will work for it provides the agent in question with a better, rational alternative.


Word count = 912











Hardin, G., 1968. The Tragedy of the Commons. Science, 162(3859), pp. 1243-1248.

Schlüter, A. and Theesfeld, I., 2010. The grammar of institutions: The challenge of distinguishing between strategies, norms, and rules. Rationality and Society22(4), pp.445-475.

Wells, H. G., 1895. Chapter One. In: The Time Machine. London: Heinemann, pp. 11-24.


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