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Elinor Ostrom and the solution to the tragedy of the commons

Elinor Ostrom's "research concerned the governance of common resources (also known as commons). The commons are natural resources, like land for grazing, fishing areas, forests for timber, water for the irrigation of farmland, and also more intangible resources, like knowledge, for which it is very expensive to control and fence in 'user' consumption. The problem with these types of resources, as shown in 1968 by Garrett Hardin (but Aristotle had already observed a similar phenomenon) is that they are over-exploited, or at least their care and sustainability is overlooked by users. The reason is that people behave opportunistically (like free-riders) and consider the resource they are accessing, without the possibility of being excluded, as a free resource, and they therefore maximize their private benefits but neglect, or collectivize, the costs.

Hardin coined the phrase 'tragedy of the commons' to describe this phenomenon and gave social sciences one of the most evocative metaphors after Adam Smith’s 'invisible hand'. These two metaphors are effective because they capture two essential social situations in marked contrast to one another. When social interactions are guided by an invisible hand, they reconcile individual choice and socially desirable results, whereas in the tragedy of the commons, individuals pursuing their private objectives cause disastrous consequences for themselves and others. The solution to the tragedy of the commons, before the contribution of Ostrom and her studies, was to privatize resources or, in a diametrically opposite view, to form a Leviathan state in order to manage them.

Instead, Ostrom demonstrated that, within communities, rules and institutions of non-market and not resulting from public planning can emerge from the bottom up to ensure a sustainable, shared management of resources, as well as one that is efficient from an economical point of view. Besides the village of Törbel, Ostrom shows examples of common lands in the Japanese villages of Hirano and Nagaike, the huerta irrigation mechanism between Valencia, Murcia and Alicante in Spain, and the zanjera irrigation community in the Philippines. Also, the property in the form of 'vicinale', neighborhoods, typical of regions of Italy like Emilia, the Belluno and the Ticino, are also collective institutions, although not investigated by Ostrom. The argument then has a more modern example if one notices that even the 'Wikipedia community' is a form of successful collective institution of a communal resource (knowledge)."

(Flavio Felice, Massimiliano Vatiero, 27 June 2012)



Adam Smith • American political economist • assets • Belluno • bottom-up organisation • collective institutions • collective interests • common pool resources (CPR) • common propertycommons • communal resource • economic governance • economic science • Elinor Ostrom • Emilia • English Industrial Revolution • exploitationfencing • Flavio Felice • Garrett Hardin • governance of common resources • Hirano • huerta irrigation mechanism • individual choice • invisible hand • Karl Polanyi • land management • Massimiliano Vatiero • Nagaike • natural resourcesopportunism • over-exploitation • political economics • political economist • political economyprivate control • privatisation • privatisation of land • public government • public planning • resource managementsocial interactionssocial situation • socially desirable results • sustainabilitysustainability thinking • Ticino • Torbel • tragedy of the commons • vicinale • Wikipedia • Wikipedia community • zanjera irrigation community


Simon Perkins
27 NOVEMBER 2010 individual experience causing social fragmentation?

"MIT technology specialist Nicholas Negroponte prophecies the emergence of 'the Daily Me'––a communications package that is personally designed, with each component fully chosen in advance [4]. Many of us are applauding these developments, which obviously increase individual convenience and entertainment. But in the midst of the applause, we should insist on asking some questions. How will the increasing power of private control affect democracy? How will the Internet, the new forms of television, and the explosion of communications options alter the capacity of citizens to govern themselves? What are the social preconditions for a well–functioning system of democratic deliberation, or for individual freedom itself? ...

A large part of my aim is to explore what makes for a well–functioning system of free expression. Above all, I urge that in a diverse society, such a system requires far more than restraints on government censorship and respect for individual choices. For the last decades, this has been the preoccupation of American law and politics, and indeed the law and politics of many other nations as well, including, for example, Germany, France, England, and Israel. Censorship is indeed a threat to democracy and freedom. But an exclusive focus on government censorship produces serious blind spots. In particular, a well–functioning system of free expression must meet two distinctive requirements.

First, people should be exposed to materials that they would not have chosen in advance. Unplanned, unanticipated encounters are central to democracy itself. Such encounters often involve topics and points of view that people have not sought out and perhaps find quite irritating. They are important partly to ensure against fragmentation and extremism, which are predictable outcomes of any situation in which like–minded people speak only with themselves. I do not suggest that government should force people to see things that they wish to avoid. But I do contend that in a democracy deserving the name, people often come across views and topics that they have not specifically selected.

Second, many or most citizens should have a range of common experiences. Without shared experiences, a heterogeneous society will have a much more difficult time in addressing social problems. People may even find it hard to understand one another. Common experiences, emphatically including the common experiences made possible by the media, provide a form of social glue. A system of communications that radically diminishes the number of such experiences will create a number of problems, not least because of the increase in social fragmentation.

As preconditions for a well–functioning democracy, these requirements hold in any large nation. They are especially important in a heterogeneous nation, one that faces an occasional risk of fragmentation. They have all the more importance as each nation becomes increasingly global and each citizen becomes, to a greater or lesser degree, a 'citizen of the world."

(Cass Sunstein, 2002)

Sunstein, C. (2002). "The Daily Me"., Princeton University Press.

Fig.1 San Liu (2004) 'Narcissism'



1995 • being digital • Cass Sunsteincensorship • citizen of the world • citizenshipcommon experiences • communications technologies • consumer choiceconveniencecultural signalsdemocracy • democratic deliberation • democratic participation • democratic society • digital culturediversityemerging technologiesempathyextremismfilter • Fishwrap • fragmentationfree expressionfreedomfreedom of speechglobalisation • government censorship • heterogeneity • heterogeneous society • individual choiceindividual experienceindividual freedomindividualisminformation in context • international relations • Internetisolationmedia consumptionMITnarcissismnew forms of televisionNicholas Negroponteparticipationpersonalisation • political philosophy • power • Princeton University Press • private control • • shared experiencesocial changesocial constructionismsocial fragmentationsocial gluesocial interactionthe Daily Me


Simon Perkins

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