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Coping with Tragedies of the Commons

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Type: Working Paper
Author: Ostrom, Elinor
Date: 1998
Agency: Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN
Series: Workshop Working Paper W98-24
URI: https://hdl.handle.net/10535/5876
Sector: Theory
Subject(s): tragedy of the commons
game theory
common pool resources--theory
Abstract: "Contemporary policy analysis of the governance of common-pool resources is based on three core assumptions that (1) resource users are norm-free maximizers of immediate gains who will not cooperate to overcome the commons dilemmas they face, (2) designing rules to change incentives of participants is a relatively simple analytical task, and (3) organization itself requires central direction. The paper shows that these assumptions are wrong and a poor foundation for policy analysis. Findings from carefully controlled laboratory experiments are summarized that challenge the first assumption. A different assumption that humans are fallible, boundedly rational, and norm-using is adopted. The complexity of using rules as tools to change the structure of commons dilemmas is then discussed, drawing on extensive research on rules in field settings. Viewing all policies as experiments with a probability of failure, recent research on a different form of general organization—that of complex adaptive systems—is applied to the process of changing rules. The last sections examine the capabilities and limits of a series of completely independent resource governance systems and the importance of encouraging the evolution of polycentric governance systems."

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