Document Type


Publication Date


Publication Citation

10 Journal of Institutional Economics 353 (2014)


The institutional and ecological structure of Hardin’s “tragedy of the commons” appears deceptively simple: the open-access pasture eventually will be overexploited and degraded unless (i) it is privatized, (ii) the government regulates access and use, or (iii) the users themselves impose a common-property regime to regulate their own access and use. In this paper, we argue that the institutional structure of the “Herder Problem” (as it is known to game theorists) is far more complicated than it is usually portrayed. Specifically, it is not just about the pasture. It is equally about the grass that grows on the pasture and the cattle that consume the grass. Even Elinor Ostrom — a scholar known for embracing complexity — presented an overly simplistic portrayal of Hardin’s open-access pasture when she described its governance system as a null set of institutions. A more careful assessment of the situation, employing Ostrom’s Social-Ecological System (SES) framework, broadens the focus from the res communes omnium pasture to incorporate the res nullius grass that grows upon it and the res private cattle grazing there. The “tragedy” arises from the combination and interactions of the resources and their governing institutions, not just from the absence of property in the pasture. If the grass was not subject to appropriation, the cattle were not privately owned, or if property- and contract-enforcement institutions supporting market exchange were absent, the “tragedy of the commons” probably would not arise regardless of the pasture’s open-access status.