work of resource economists and consistent with Hardin’s thesis that “freedom in a commons brings ruin to all” (Hardin, 1968:1244). This literature stressed the importance of unitary ownership—including privatization as well as government ownership. However, the major policy innovation of this era was legislation in many countries—particularly developing countries—that transferred forests, pasture land, in-shore fisheries, and other natural resources from their previous property rights regimes to government ownership (see Arnold and Campbell, 1986).
Extensive research and experience since 1968 shows that these transfers of property rights were sometimes disastrous for the resources they were intended to protect. Instead of creating a single owner with a long-term interest in the resource, nationalizing common-pool resources typically led to (1) a rejection of any existing indigenous institutions—making the actions of local stewards to sustain a resource illegal; (2) poor monitoring of resource boundaries and harvesting practices because many governments did not have the resources to monitor the resources to which they asserted ownership; and (3) de facto open access conditions and a race to use of the resources. Thus, the presumption that government ownership was one of two universally applicable “solutions” to the “tragedy” was seriously challenged by these historical experiences.
Hardin argued that a “man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit—in a world that is limited” (Hardin, 1968:1244). He further asserted that having a conscience was self-eliminating.6 Those who restrain their use of a common-pool resource lose out economically in comparison to those who continue unrestrained use. Thus, evolutionary processes will select for those who exercise unrestrained use and against those who restrain their own harvesting. Hardin’s solution was “mutually agreed upon” coercion. Two inferences were usually drawn from this formulation. One is that only what psychologists call aversive (coercive) controls can be effective, suggesting that effective rules cannot be based on creating internalized norms or obligations in resource users. The other is that agreements on rules must be reached only through the state (usually, the national government), suggesting that local governments and informal and nongovernmental institutions cannot develop effective ways to prevent or remedy situations that lead to tragedy (Gibson, 2001).
Challenges to the conceptual underpinnings, to the empirical validity, to the theoretical adequacy, and to the generalizability of Hardin’s model and the related work in resource economics were articulated throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. A key challenge to the Hardin model came from researchers familiar with diverse common property institutions in the field. They argued that Hardin had seriously confused the concept of common property with open access conditions where no rules existed to limit entry and use. As Ciriacy-Wantrup and Bishop (1975:715) expressed it, “common property is not everyone’s property.” They