I’m not sure just what it is about people in my Property Law class. So far, we’ve been covering some basic economic issues, and today we touched on the topic of the tragedy of the commons. Despite some of the utilitarian thinkers whose names we were introduced to in the text, the ideas shouldn’t be so hard to grasp.
“Tragedy of the commons” may be a term of economics, but the idea is very basic. Let’s say you’ve got a communal pasture, which everyone can access, and which nobody has rights to. What happens, then, in a community of herders? You’ll get overgrazing, because when nobody owns the rights to the common pasture, and anybody can use it, nobody has an incentive to stop somebody else’s herd from grazing. It’s a recipe for environmental disaster. The basic economic idea underlying this is that, when there is open access, and no exclusive rights, resources will be consumed faster, resulting in underproduction or shortage. To prevent overgrazing in the commons, then, the community could either ban herding (which has the advantage of negating the entire scenario, but the disadvantage of being unrealistic and avoiding the question), or the community could create private property by dividing the commons into small parcels. Each property owner then has a vested interest in the productivity of his piece of pasture, and so will not only limit his own consumption, but invoke his right, guaranteed by the law, to prevent others from grazing on his part of the pasture by any reasonable means, such as by building a fence. Simple enough, right?