Rose, 1994) has described as a “comedy”—a drama for certain, but one with a happy ending.
Three decades of empirical research have revealed many rich and complicated histories of commons management. Sometimes these histories tell of Hardin’s tragedy. Sometimes the outcome is more like McCay’s comedy. Often the results are somewhere in between, filled with ambiguity. But drama is always there. That is why we have chosen to call this book The Drama of the Com-mons—because the commons entails history, comedy, and tragedy.
Research on the commons would be warranted entirely because of its practical importance. Nearly all environmental issues have aspects of the commons in them. Important theoretical reasons exist for studying the commons as well. At the heart of all social theory is the contrast between humans as motivated almost exclusively by narrow self-interest and humans as motivated by concern for others or for society as a whole.1 The rational actor model that dominates economic theory, but is also influential in sociology, political science, anthropology, and psychology, posits strict self-interest. As Adam Smith put it, “We are not ready to suspect any person of being defective in selfishness” (Smith, 1977:446). This assumption is what underpins Hardin’s analysis.
Opposing views, however, have always assumed that humans take account of the interests of the group. For example, functionalist theory in sociology and anthropology, especially the human ecological arguments of Rappaport and Vayda (Rappaport, 1984; Vayda and Rappaport, 1968), argued that the “tragedy of the commons” could be averted by mechanisms that cause individuals to act in the interests of the collective good rather than with narrow self-interest. Nor has this debate been restricted to the social sciences. In evolutionary theory, arguments for adaptations that give advantage to the population or the species at cost to the individual have been under criticism at least since the 1960s (Williams, 1966). But strong arguments remain for the presence of altruism (Sober and Wilson, 1998).
If we assume narrow self-interest and one-time interactions, then the tragedy of the commons is one of a set of paradoxes that follow. Another is the classical prisoners’ dilemma. In the canonical formulation, two co-conspirators are captured by the police. If neither informs on the other, they both face light sentences. If both inform, they both face long jail terms. If one informs and the other doesn’t, the informer receives a very light sentence or is set free while the noninformer receives a very heavy sentence. Faced with this set of payoffs, the narrow self-interest of each will cause both to inform, producing a result less desirable to each than if they both had remained silent.
Olson (1965) made us aware that the organization of groups to pursue collective ends, such as political and policy outcomes, was vulnerable to a paradox, often called the “free-rider problem,” that had previously been identified in regard to other “public goods” (Samuelson, 1954). A public good is something to which everyone has access but, unlike a common-pool resource, one person’s use