Rethinking Local Commons Dilemmas: Lessons from Experimental Economics in the Field


"In particular, the academic debate over the best prediction about the behavior of people that use a common-pool resource (CPR), and the recommended policy approaches to the CPR dilemma have undergone a very interesting evolution throughout the last 3 decades of the past century, since the emergence of at least two seminal contributions; Garret Hardin's 'Tragedy of the Commons' (1968) and his reflections on the lack of individual property rights over resources under joint access; and Mancur Olson's Logic of Collective Action (1965) on the difficulties for large and homogenous groups to achieve the voluntary provision of a public good. The empirical evidence on groups using common-pool resources, dating back for centuries, and still today remaining inconclusive, supports in many cases and rejects in many others the different hypotheses available today. Why in some cases groups succeed collectively in managing a resource for which they have joint access, while in similar situations other groups drive the resource closer to exhaustion and socially undesirable results? Why some individuals do act in these situations according to the theoretical prediction of the homo-economicus while others do not? The fact that these questions remain unsolved should challenge the way the problem of commons dilemmas is taught and studied in the economics profession, and in how it transpires to policy making debates. However, much of the teaching of this particular problem is done without much of the new theoretical, empirical and experimental contributions that have emerged since Hardin's tragedy prediction. Today the problem of the commons is still presented to students as a free-rider problem where the individual rationality of those extracting the resource and the lack of private or state ownership of the resource would drive the common-pool to yields that are socially sub-optimal, and eventually to exhaustion. At best, some authors seem to acknowledge the difference in rights and rules between open access and common property. Nevertheless, the introductory level teaching ignores in most cases the possibility of the groups devising institutions for self-management and control, or the possibility of human preferences that involve the welfare or actions of others. Further, much of the policy textbook recipes still remain within the two orthodox approaches of assigning individual property rights to the resource, or transferring all property and control to the state for a socially efficient management to emerge. However, a long and rich path has been covered by many social and natural scientists that explore the factors that drive human behavior when facing a CPR dilemma. This paper wants to respond to this concern in two ways. One, by providing in sections 2 and 3 elements from recent advances in the analysis of CPRs that could be easily introduced into the teaching and policy design regarding the social dilemmas arising from the use of commons. In particular, it will call the attention to the lack of importance given to community governance solutions and the focusing on the state and the market solutions, at least in the teaching and policy design arenas. The second contribution to the concern is through a set of results (Section 4) from field experiments conducted in actual CPR settings in rural locations; the results provide empirical evidence of some of the new developments in the literature and question much of the conventional views about these dilemmas."



prisoner's dilemma, game theory, heterogeneity, inequality, common pool resources--economics, experimental economics--methodology, cooperation--theory