Tragedy of errors

I have signed up for email alerts from parliament when the words ‘common land’ are mentioned in Hansard.  And so I learnt of a reference to common land which was buried deep in a costive debate in the House of Lords on 1 December about the National Health Service (Licensing and Pricing) (Amendment) Regulations 2015.

Lord Prior of Brampton, Minister for NHS Productivity (whatever that is), responded to the debate on the regulations.  Labour Peer Lord Turnberg had said that the regulations were designed to save money.  Lord Prior responded: ‘It is not designed to save money, but to reallocate money.  We have a fixed pool of money.  The noble Lord will be familiar with the concept of the tragedy of the commons.  The problem with the tragedy of the commons is that when you have a fixed resource, be it fish, money or common land—where it is used in law the most—no individual user of that resource has an incentive to husband it.’

Lord Prior seems to be unaware that the tragedy of the commons (Garrett Hardin’s article in Science, 13 December 1968) was in fact a metaphor for over-population (‘tragedy’ meaning the inevitability of destiny) and that it has been challenged many times.  Hardin’s solution was that the resource should be privatised, or that the right to use the resource should be restricted.

Bridestowe Common, Dartmoor

Bridestowe Common, Dartmoor

However, the great Nobel prizewinner, the late Elinor (Lin) Ostrom from Indiana University, demonstrated empirically that Hardin’s ‘tragedy’ generally did not happen in practice and that Hardin’s proposed solutions were counter- productive.  She found that most common resources are well managed when those who stand to benefit are close to the resource and to each other; the users create and enforce measures to prevent over-exploitation.  The ‘tragedy occurs when there are one or more outsiders involved, who impose their solutions or change the rules to their advantage.  Lin’s thesis is grounded in extensive fieldwork all over the globe, from Maine lobstermen to Swiss cheese-producers in the Alps and irrigation projects in Sri Lanka.

Hardin’s ‘tragedy’ is often prayed in aid by those who back free markets and private property-rights. Lord Prior is not alone in quoting him loosely to support his case without recognising what it is all about.

Lord Prior might like to read Lin’s seminal work Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (1990) before citing Garrett Hardin again.

About campaignerkate

I am the general secretary of the Open Spaces Society and I campaign for public access, paths and open spaces in town and country.
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