Tragedy of the Uncommons

By Raul Lejano and Helen Ingram

About 40 years ago, Garret Hardin proposed a model that explained why people mistreat the environment and, ultimately, hurt themselves. The model, called the Tragedy of the Commons, used the example of cows on a pasture (owned by no one and open to use by anyone), to argue why ranchers, acting simply out of self-interest, end up putting too many cows out to pasture, in the end ruining the field and going out of business.

The model is actually the environmental version of a much earlier model, formulated by the mathematician, A.W. Tucker, called the Prisoner's Dilemma. At any rate, Hardin argued for two alternative ways to solve the problem of the commons: big government or privatization. The state-centered solution would have government telling each rancher how many cows to put out. The market solution, on the other hand, works by capturing externalities within ranchers' decision functions --e.g., if only one rancher owned the entire pasture, then she would choose to put out the sustainable number of cows instead of grazing it to ruin. About 20 years later, Elinor Ostrom proposed a third solution that involved neither state control nor private marketization --using the logic of repeated games (i.e., the so-called Folk Theorem), she reasoned that communally shared property could still be managed by self-interested actors provided that the game is not played just once but repeatedly.

All three of the above solutions to the commons problem share a common feature, which is the creation of a formal system of property rights (whether state, private, or communal). But now, we turn to the same example, but with a different bovine.

For centuries, Native Americans sustainably managed the buffalo population of the Great Plains, while living a nomadic way of life. The ethic was simply to follow the buffalo and live by them. Yet there never was, it can be argued, anything like a system of property rights --so how did they do it? To begin answering this, we employed a social-ecological trick, which is to reverse the directionality of theory. This literature exhibits a tendency of academia, which is to start with a simple model (in this case, that of individuals acting to maximize personal utility) and impose this onto the entire universe.

Rather than take the simple model (where a decision-maker maximizes one number, which is his own utility) and proceed to interpret the world using this, we begin with the world and use observations of phenomena in it to create a more complex model. This respect for complexity is a feature of social-ecological research. In this case, we draw from work in environmental history and sociology to explain anomalies (such as buffalo management).

It appears that the Native Americans created a form of what we now call a network form of governance. Simply put, a network is nothing other than a set of links connecting individuals nodes (such that there exists a path that connects any two individuals). What was special about this network? As Castells argues in his book, The Rise of the Network Society, some networks work because the links connecting nodes are multiplex --i.e., they can convey rich information, and not just one-dimensional signals like personal utility.

Using this insight, we reformulate the prisoner's dilemma game and show that, when decisions are made not according to the one-dimensional signal of personal utility, but a richer signal, we can achieve sustainable outcomes, without the need for a formal system of property rights. The new model appears to be useful in explaining not just the bison, but other anomalies, like counterfactual results in so-called ultimatum games. In this research, we combine classic game theory and sociology to construct a richer model of collective action --see forthcoming article. A second task is to begin theorizing how to model relationships (i.e., the links) between nodes --for some early theorizing on this, see Frameworks for Policy Analysis: Merging Text and Context (Lejano, 2006).

The following is an example of how the new model can be used to better explain findings from experimental games and field studies.