Learning About the Tragedy of the Commons

Thought July 16th, 2023

I’ve been reading a few different things recently that have mentioned the concept of the Tragedy of the Commons.

The basic concept is that many individuals will over-use a finite resource, and thereby render it value-less or unusable. A simple example of this could be a public park - if too many people use it, it will loose its value as a quiet escape from city life. It will be polluted and busy, with never enough maintenance resources available to bring it up to the minimum quality expected.

This comes up as well when we’re thinking about digital resources. Information and code are often talked about as having zero marginal cost, but this is not considering the hosting, maintenance and support required. If an open-source library becomes very popular, although users can use it without direct cost on the maintainer, in reality this will lead to more support and feature requests, issues being opened, pull requests that need to be reviewed, and hosting costs for the tools like issue trackers and forums.

The book Working in Public: The Making and Maintenance of Open Source Software by Nadia Eghbal talks about this at length, and is a very interesting read.

The Tragedy of the Commons concept also comes up in conversations about the environment and global warming. One of these subjects that is easy to understand but hard to solve is the problem of overfishing and illegal fishing, which has the potential to kill an entire ecosystem, removing fish as a food source and economic good for a whole society because of the actions of a few bad actors.