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Conditional cooperation in commons management: Ostrom versus Hardin

"To many, the word coercion implies arbitrary decisions of distant and irresponsible bureaucrats; but this is not a necessary part of its meaning. The only kind of coercion I recommend is mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon by the majority of the people affected." -- Garrett Hardin, The Tragedy of the Commons

Garrett Hardin's "The tragedy of the commons", published 42 years ago in Science, is one of the most influential papers of all time. He made four main points, of which the first two have received the most attention:
1) Some important problems cannot be solved by purely technological means. For example, increasing crop yields is at best a temporary solution to the problem of feeding an ever-growing population.
2) Adam Smith's "invisible hand", whereby individuals following their own interests benefit society as a whole, doesn't always work. This is because the individual benefit from grazing a cow on shared land (a "commons"), or from harvesting a rare fish species, or from a manufacturing process that pollutes the air, can exceed the individual cost of that one cow's damage to the grazing land, the slightly increased extinction risk for the fish species, or breathing slightly more-polluted air.
3) Human decisions about reproduction are similar to the above examples, because they are largely based on individual costs and benefits. Any genetic or cultural lineages that restrain their reproduction for the public good will be overwhelmed by lineages that do not.
4) It is widely recognized that some limitations on grazing, fishing, and pollution are needed to bring individual behavior in line with the long-term common good. Similarly, some restriction of the freedom to breed will be necessary to limit population growth.

Except in China, which apparently missed the "mutually agreed upon" part, most people have ignored Hardin's main point, the claim that some form of mutual coercion is needed to limit human reproduction. Instead Elinor Ostrom and others have done lots of good research on the ways that various groups manage common resources, such as forests or fishing grounds. When she spoke here recently, by video link, I was surprised to hear her accuse Hardin of advocating government (as opposed to community) control of common resources. I'm sure he advocated government control in some cases, but his statement quoted above is equally consistent with community-based solutions. The key point is that there must be some individual incentives for individuals to act in ways consistent with the common good.

An example of recent work on commons management is a paper, also published in Science, titled "Conditional cooperation and costly monitoring explain success in forest commons management", by Devesh Rustagi, Stefanie Engel, and Michael Kosfield. They compared 49 different community groups in Ethiopia, each of which manages a forest. In the absence of some mechanism to prevent individuals from, for example, harvesting too many trees, Hardin's hypothesis would predict over-harvesting and deterioration of the common resource.

The researchers used the number of young trees per hectare (PCT=potential crop trees) as a measure of management success. Most such trees were cut for charcoal before the community-management program began, so regrowth of young trees requires communities to forgo some immediate gain for longer-term benefits.

The abstract of the paper reports that this measure of successful management was correlated with "conditional cooperation." This seemed a bit odd to me. In a group of only two people, it's simple enough to say "I won't over-harvest if you don't", but that sort of tit-for-tat cooperation doesn't directly translate into larger groups. It turns out, though, that the authors measured conditional cooperation using a two-person version of the public goods game, where conditional cooperation essentially amounted to punishing non-cooperation by the other player. That attitude (or cultural norm) seems likely to translate into some tendency to enforce forest-management rules in the real world. And indeed, individuals classified as conditional cooperators based on the game spent more time patrolling the forest, enforcing rules against over-harvesting.

What about the "community" versus "government" distinction? Is the "executive committee on the group level chaired by the group leader" charged with "punishment of free riders" part of a community, a form of local government, or both? In any case, the "distant bureaucrats" apparently disdained by both Ostrom and Hardin did apparently play at least two key roles. The article states that:

"...groups of the Bale Oromo people were given secure tenure rights to use and manage their forests as common property resources (39). In return, these groups are required to maintain their forest cover, for which they are allowed to implement local rules regarding forest use"

So the national or regional government (1) protected group land tenure (for example, against the sort of problem Ostrom mentioned in her talk here, where a local community managing their fishery sustainably was unable to exclude outsiders who over-harvested), and (2) enforced result-based management standards, though without micromanaging. For example:
"...assessment is carried out once every five years by the forest administration with active participation from group members. The main purpose of this assessment is to determine the annual allowable timber quota and the rent each group has to pay to the local forest administration".

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