Coping with Tragedies of the Commons

Contemporary policy analysis of the governance of common-pool resources is based on three core assumptions: (a) resource users are norm-free maximizers of immediate gains, who will not cooperate to overcome the commons dilemmas they face; (b) designing rules to change incentives of participants is a relatively simple analytical task; and (c) organization itself requires central direction. The chapter shows that these assumptions are a poor foundation for policy analysis. Findings from carefully controlled laboratory experiments that challenge the first assumption are summarized. A different assumption that humans are fallible, boundedly rational, and normusing is adopted. The complexity of using rules as tools to change the structure of commons dilemmas is then discussed, drawing on extensive research on rules in field settings. Viewing all policies as experiments with a probability of failure, recent research on a different form of general organization that of complex adaptive systems is applied to the process of changing rules. The last sections examine the capabilities and limits of a series of completely independent resource governance systems and the importance of encouraging the evolution of polycentric governance systems.

Elinor Ostrom
Published in: Annual Review of Political Science
1999 2 Pages 493-535