Reassessment of the Theory of the commons

Focus on the work of Elinor Ostrom et al.

by P.-E. Bouillot

Following our previous post, we will present a critical article about the theory of the commons. This work of Elinor Ostrom et al describes the progresses that were made since Garret Hardin’s article “Tragedy of the commons” has been published.

In the article “Revisting the Commons”, Ostrom et al describe some ways to expand our understanding of global commons, which they named common-pool resource. According to Ostrom et al it includes “natural and human-constructed resources in which exclusion of beneficiaries through physical and institutional means is especially costly, and (ii) exploitation by one user reduces resource availability for others”. It includes ecosystems, earth-systems like atmosphere as well as human production like “irrigations systems and World Wide Web”.

Ostrom et al don’t refute the commons problem, which was argued by Garret Hardin in 1968, but they do not agree that solutions must be imposed on users of the common by external authorities. Contrary to Hardin, they do not think that the tragedy of the commons can be prevented by “a redefinition of the property rights” especially by private property or by a more powerful government regulation. In particular, they give some examples where privatization or central state governance is associated with more degradation of the resources. Indeed common-pool resource problems still exist although there are different regulations systems. These observations drive the authors to indentify the settings which have successfully governed common-pool resources during a long time. For example, they think some traditional group-property regimes, like a farmer-managed irrigation systems in Nepal, which achieved a successful management of a commons.

But according to Ostrom et al there is “no single type of property (1) regime [that] works efficiently, fairly, and sustainably in relation to common-pool resources”. They identify two elements to solving common-pool resource: “restricting access and creating incentives for users to invest in the resource instead of overexploiting it”. Most likely a local governance is successful within a single country. It is more difficult to manage the commons which are shared by different countries, that is why the authors are focusing on these new local and regional experiences which can be helpful to manage global commons.

Elinor Ostrom et al, Revisiting the Commons: Local lessons, global Challenges, Science, 9 April 1999, Vol. 284.

(1)   They identified four broad type of property rights used to regulate common-pool resources:

Property rights Characteristics
Open access Absence of enforced property rights
Group property Resource rights held by a group of users who can exclude others
Individual property Resource rights held by individuals (or firms) who can exclude others
Government property Resource rights held by a government that can regulate or subsidize use
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