Congratulating Elinor Ostrom for winning the Nobel Prize is terrific, but please don’t get carried away like Jay Walljasper, who writes Tragedy of the Commons, R.I.P.

It is one thing to say that the Tragedy of the Commons is sometimes solved by community-based management or other bottom-up processes, but it is quite another thing to imply that these processes always solve the TOC or that “Tragedy of the Commons, R.I.P.”

Look at fisheries or climate change and you will find that the TOC does an excellent job of describing the bad outcomes that often result when there is a commons. And for the record, the “privatization and markets” solutions that this author pooh-poohs include cap-and-trade systems as well as carbon taxes. I doubt that you think we should just jettison those ideas and leave the fate of the planet to bottom-up “community-based” processes. (Stiglitz doesn’t think so either, and I doubt that Ostrom does either.)

PS #1: Yes there can be a right-wing view of the TOC: private property and all that. But there can also be a right-wing view of Ostrom’s work: If community-based management can solve all these problems then we don’t need government, right? Aha, it’s the invisible hand and the Coase Theorem and Milton Friedman is back again!

PS #2: What Garrett Hardin actually argued for in his original piece was “mutual coercion mutually agreed upon”, and my guess is that he thought that democratic processes were the best way to get the “mutually agreed upon” part. I agree with him, and I think you have to be careful giving too many props to bottom-up processes. Yes “community-based management” can sometimes handle the TOC, but it often involves extra-governmental punishment—e.g., cutting the lines of “outsides” who try to catch lobsters in Maine—that sound dangerously close to vigilante action. Lots of oppression of women, blacks, Jews, Catholics, etc. has historically taken place through “community-based” processes. (Yes, plenty has taken place through democratic processes too, but if I had to choose I’d feel safer with democracy.)