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Social-Ecological Systems Meta-Analysis Database: Theory

The tragedy of the open-access commons

Variable relationship:

The importance of property rights in ensuring environmental conservation is often discussed in the context of the problems of a lack of such rights, which is commonly known as open-access property conditions. An open-access property regime (Property Regime), implies little security of property rights (Property Security) and few institutional restrictions on commons use, and has been predicted to lead to overuse and commons deterioration (Commons Condition Trend). Conversely, it is likewise predicted that the presence of property rights arrangements will help sustain a commons.

This theory, expressed as the "tragedy of the commons," is most commonly credited to Hardin (1968), who, in contrast to popular accounts, does not strongly advocate for a highly centralized response to the problem, nor to any specific form of property rights in his seminal article. In fact, other than the parable of the herdsmen, which has drawn much of the scholarly community's attention, there is little in his article that suggests the importance of centralization or decentralization. Hardin's key phrase in offering advice to resolve the tragedy was to suggest "mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon," which in fact comes across more like the more bottom-up proposals that some of his strongest critics have proposed. Indeed, the following passage is worth quoting in this regard:

"To many, the word coercion implies arbitrary decisions of distant and irresponsible bureaucrats; but this is not a necessary part of its meaning. The only kind of coercion I recommend is mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon by the majority of the people affected."

This last element in fact aligns with one of Ostrom's (1990) design principles (see theory "Design principles for CBNRM").

While Hardin certainly did the most to popularize this theory, Aristotle is in fact quoted as having stated in book 2 of Politics that "that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. Everyone thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest; and only when he is himself concerned as an individual. For besides other considerations, everybody is more inclined to neglect the duty which he expects another to fulfill." Additionally, Gordon (1954: 135) has stated: "There appears, then, to be some truth in the conservative dictum that everybody's property is nobody's property. Wealth that is free for all is valued by none because he who is foolhardy enough to wait for its proper time of use will only find that it is being taken by another."

Finally, it is important to note that, in arguing that a lack of property right security is sufficient for environmental degradation, it also argues that the presence of such rights is necessary for environmental conservation. This argument is most frequently made in the context of land tenure in developing-world contexts, with major development bureaucracies investing substantial resources in programs oriented around formalizing land tenure arrangements (http://usaidlandtenure.net/).

Scientific Field
Component Type(s)
Environmental Common, Local Resource User Group, Local Government


VariableRoleRole ExplanationValue
Property regimeUnderlying independent variableOpen-access is labeled as a type of property regime, but in reality it is the absence of an enforced property regime. Without any property rights, it is predicted that commons users will degrade the commons since no one part of the commons is attached to or associated with the welfare of any particular user.Open-access
Property securityProximate independent variableWhen there is open access the ability of resource users to appropriate the benefits of their conservation efforts is not guaranteed and this discourages them from investing those efforts.Low
Commons condition trendFinal outcomeA lack of property rights and collective-action leads to environmental degradation.Worsened

Related Theories

TheoryRelationshipCharacterizing Variables
Community-based natural resource management (CBNRM)related
Private property rights and conservationrelated

Related Studies


Gordon, H.S., 1954. The economic theory of a common-property resource: the fishery. The Journal of Political Economy 124–142.


Hardin, G., 1968. The tragedy of the commons. Science 162, 1243–1248.