The Tragedy of “The Tragedy of the Commons”: Hardin versus the Property Rights Theorists

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Garrett Hardin’s article “The Tragedy of the Commons” is widely influential but fundamentally incorrect. Hardin characterizes the commons problem as arising from the exercise of free will in a world with limited carrying capacity. Hardin’s solutions to this problem emphasize coercive policies, including traditional command-and-control environmental and natural resource regulations. In contrast, the property rights literature that preceded Hardin shows that the commons problem arises from nonexclusive-use rights. Nonexclusivity is part of a broader class of restrictions on private ownership, any of which fosters dissipative rent seeking. The property rights literature focuses on value creation rather than just the physical exhaustion of the commonly owned resource. It is therefore more general and highlights solutions that are less coercive and dissipative than the more widely known views espoused by Hardin.

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