Why do people behave the way they do? The answer to this age-old, fundamental question is essential if someone plans to propose a rule to bring about a peaceful and prosperous community. If we understand why people behave the way they do, we can generally predict how they are apt to behave, given the circumstances. “Tragedy of the commons,” or more accurately, “the tragedy of open access,” illustrates how people behave, given the problem of open access to a limited resource.
Ultimately, everyone behaves in ways they consider in their best interest. Selfishness is the immutable driving force of life. The forces of nature that sculpt the structure of our bodies, hearts, and kidneys are the same that sculpt our behavior. Our brains evolved to regulate behavior to maximize gene replication. In other words, selfishness underlies the traits that determine the proficiency of gene replication. The genes that produce “good” traits leave more copies. In social animals such as ourselves, genes favoring cooperation (a reciprocal mechanism) emerged as a more adaptive trait than did those favoring aggression.
There are two general circumstances in which open access to resources can lead to the tragedy of the commons. One is where nature replenishes resources (natural renewable resources) such as off-shore fisheries, forests, open pastures, and underground water basins. In this instance, the given area of a resource is unowned and has unrestricted access, thereby allowing anyone to exploit the resource at will. The second circumstance is where members of a community produce and replenish resources (human renewable resources) such as goods and services. In this instance, the produced resource is or becomes part of a communal pool for appropriation by the members, irrespective of their individual contribution.
Natural Renewable Resources
First we will examine how people are apt to behave when faced with a tragedy of the commons in which there is open access to a natural, renewable resource. The dilemma arises when you know (as do others) that when there is unrestricted access to a resource, the rational, self-interest choice is to take as much as possible in the here and now because everyone else will be doing the same, but you also know that such rational, individual behavior will not be in your or anyone else’s best interest in the long run because it will completely deplete the resource.
In her lifelong work, Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom (1933-2012) studied such open-access resources and discovered that, notwithstanding the dilemma encountered in a commons, there is a large body of common sense in the world. She found that people, when left to themselves, would sort out rational ways of surviving and getting along. Although the world’s arable land, forests, fresh water, and fisheries are all finite, it is possible to share them without depleting them and care for them without fighting. Years of fieldwork by Ostrom and others showed her that humans are not trapped and helpless amid diminishing supplies. She looked at forests in Nepal, irrigation systems in Spain, mountain villages in Switzerland and Japan, and fisheries in Maine and Indonesia. She even, as part of her PhD program at the University of California-Los Angeles, studied the water wars and pumping races going on in the 1950s in her own dry backyard.
Ostrom found that people tended to draw up sensible rules for the use of common-pool resources. Neighbors set boundaries and assigned shares, with each person taking turns to use water or graze cows on a certain meadow. They performed common tasks such as clearing canals or cutting timber together at certain times. Monitors watched out for rule breakers, fining or eventually excluding them. The schemes were mutual and reciprocal, and many had worked well for centuries. Best of all, they were not imposed from above. Ostrom put no faith in governments or large conservation schemes paid for with aid money and crawling with concrete-bearing engineers. Caring for the commons has to be a multiple task organized from the ground up and shaped to cultural norms. It has to be discussed face-to-face and based on trust.
Most instructive in Ostrom’s studies is the creativity of people trying to solve problems complicated by their own propensity to appropriate as much as possible—and how the varied strategies, while devised independently, have certain common characteristics. The variation in strategies was based on the type of resource, its accessibility, and local customs. The common elements that Ostrom found to be essential for a strategy to be successful were:
The rules and strategies need to be discovered through a dynamic evolutionary process of trial and error.
The rules must be devised by those using the resource.
The users of the resource must be responsible for monitoring and enforcing their rules.
Most important is the presumption against central planning—the plan must avoid immediate recourse to central regulations that will undermine the incentive for resource users themselves to devise rules.
In summary, when people are left to their own devices they are most capable of structuring local rules to which every member agrees to adapt his or her behavior according to a strategy that each finds personally advantageous. Government force is incapable of accomplishing that which volition accomplishes naturally.
Human Renewable Resources
Now we will examine how people are apt to behave when the resources produced by members of a community become common-pool resources with open access.
A family living independently is well aware that it is solely responsible for its own livelihood. Common sense tells its members that they cannot consume more than they produce. They are naturally motivated to behave prudently to produce and consume accordingly. Cheating is not an option for those living independently.
When joining a community, a family can continue to manage its productive and consumptive behaviors or change them to predatory behavior. The synergistic advantage of living near others will motivate cooperative behavior because reputation and trust are paramount if people want to remain members and gain the benefits of the community. Preying upon your neighbor is a good way to get ostracized from the neighborhood, since cooperation is a reciprocal mechanism.
The tragedy of the commons arises when rules are adopted or enforced that prohibit a person from controlling the distribution of that which he or she produces. Absent the ability to withhold goods from those detected as cheaters, predatory behavior becomes the norm within the community. Common sense tells us that if we are unable to ostracize slackers and free riders, we are less apt to behave cooperatively (i.e., reciprocally) because no one wants to be taken for a sucker.
Governor William Bradford’s account of the Pilgrims of Plymouth exemplifies the tragedy when a communal system is adopted for the production and distribution of goods and services. When each Pilgrim had access to an equal share of the stores produced from the land used in common for growing crops without regard to their personal contribution, the community experienced a dwindling quantity of stores produced. Facing another year of famine, the communal system was abandoned and replaced with a system that allowed each family to work its own allocated plot and retain or trade whatever it produced. In 1623—the first year following the change—the community experienced its most abundant harvest, which was and still is celebrated as Thanksgiving.
The diary kept by Governor Bradford is a testament to how people behave given the adoption of rules that run counter to their natural selfish inclinations, particularly where each person must share the product of his or her labor equally among all the community members. Not only did the communal system produce little in resources, it engendered strife and discontent between the members of the small community, even though they all shared a common and strict Christian faith. The following is a summary of the diary of William Bradford, circa 1623:
Because we had not heard of the arrival of any supplies or if any were on the way, we had to think about how we might raise as much corn as possible to obtain a better crop and avoid languishing in misery. After a long debate the Governor (with the advice of the chiefest amongst them) decided to set the crops for each man in particular to own and work. So, every family was assigned a parcel of land according to the family size. This arrangement had very good success; for it made all hands very industrious, so that much more corn was planted than would have been planted otherwise. The women now went willingly to the field and took their little ones with them to help plant corn, whereas before they would allege weakness and inabilities and complain about being oppressed.
The experience we had was contrary to the conceit of Plato and other ancients that the taking away of property and bringing into the community a common wealth would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God. For the community was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. The young men who were more able and fit for labor and service complained that they should spend time and strength working for the other men’s wives and children without compensation. The strong men thought it an injustice that they would receive the same share of food and clothes than those who were weaker and only able to do a quarter of the work. The older and graver men found that the equal ranking in labor, food, and clothes with that of the meaner and younger ones to be indignant and disrespectful. For men’s wives to be commanded to do service for other men such as dressing their meat and washing their clothes, etc., they deemed to be a kind of slavery and their husbands could not tolerate it. The point of all having to be alike and do alike they thought of themselves in the like condition and only as good as another. It took away the mutual respect that should be preserved amongst them.
Rules that ignore the biological nature of behavior simply invite tragedy. The disastrous consequences that follow the adoption of rules counter to man’s biological nature may be unintended, but are nevertheless predictable. There are annals of tragic, unintended consequences that should give anyone pause before issuing a rule designed to improve social welfare. Simply going about adopting and enforcing one rule after another, hoping one will actually produce good consequences, without bothering to understand the immutable selfish nature of human behavior, is characteristic of the inhumane world of socialism.
 Robert Sapolsky, Biology and Human Behavior: The Neurological Origins of Individuality, 2nd ed (The Teaching Company).
 “Elinor Ostrom,” Economist, June 30, 2012, http://www.economist.com/node/21557717.
 The Future of the Commons, by Elinor Ostrom, with comments by Christina Chang, Mark Pennington, and Vlad Tarko, Institute of Economic Affairs, November 1, 2012. See remarks in tribute of Elinor Ostrom by Mark Pennington, 26-34.
Louis E. Carabini received a B.A. in Pre-Medical Studies at UCLA in 1952, founded Monex, a precious metals trading company located in Newport Beach, in 1967, and currently resides in Southern California. He is the author of the book "Inclined to Liberty."
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, policies, or platform of the Libertarian Party.