What is the tragedy of the commons?

Nicholas Amendolare
TED Ed, 2017
Level: beginner
Perspective: Behavioral Economics
Topic: Behavior, Commons
Format: Short Film
Duration: 00:04:57
Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CxC161GvMPc

This short video illustrates "the tragedy of the commons", the problem that when people are faced with a public resource they have an incentive to take as much as they can get, even if that leads to it becoming depleted and thus no longer available to anyone. This phenomenon is at the basis of a lot of the problems our society is facing today - be it the climate crisis, deforestation or even the fight against pandemics. It is also the foundation for the Public Good Game in behavioral and experimental economics where researchers try to understand how cooperation might be induced - be it by punishment or pre-game communication. 


Comment from our editors:

While this is in line with neoclassical economics, it demonstrates why assuming individuals will always maximise their own gain doesn't make for a well-functioning economic system. However, in a real commons a clearly defined community regulates the joint management and use of common assets. In this way the title could actually be misleading and should read: The "tragedy of individual profit maximization". Have a look at the book "Free, Fair, and Alive" by David Bollier and Silke Helfrich in our e-library for further perspective.


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