Somewhere along the way, the concept of “Tragedy of the Commons” has become an argument in defense of enclosure and private property. The term first came into use by British economist William Forster Lloyd in 1833 to argue that unregulated grazing on public land could destroy the land, but it has largely entered public discourse through sustainability advocates to describe the situation of what happens when public resources such as rivers are unrestricted, everyone fishes them, and the ecosystems that fostered the fishing are destroyed. Open to everyone, people act to deplete the resources for everyone. The argument of the tragedy of the commons has been used to justify restricting access to fishing and hunting in order to protect the common lands, not unlike the kinds of decisions people have been making about the commons for hundreds and hundreds of years.
Students have come to think that “tragedy of the commons” means that only what is held in private is properly managed. It’s not just students, though. This kind of argument has been put forth as the public justification for privatizing public services and utilities including the U.S. mail service as if the resources will only be well-managed when they are managed for a profit. On that point, there is little evidence. This reading misunderstands “the commons” as that which is unregulated and open to anyone, instead as that which serves the whole community. The whole community is invested in regulating and facilitating the protection of the commons when it is the source of sustenance for the whole community. The case for how this works has been made by 2009 Nobel Prize Laureate in Economic Sciences Elinor Ostrom. Read more