An alternate ending to the tragedy of the commons

I recently read Elinor Ostrom’s Governing the Commons and have been evangelizing it so enthusiastically that I figured I’d do a quick writeup of its main points, and why it’s been so transformative to my thinking.

Elinor Ostrom’s work deals with common pool resource (CPR) management, for which she won a Nobel Prize in economics in 2009. She argues that current game theory doesn’t explain why some commons are, in fact, sustainably managed.

Ostrom outlines a few theories that we typically use to explain why common resource allocation will fail without intervention:

  • Prisoner’s dilemma: A game where two individuals do not cooperate, even though they rationally ought to
  • Tragedy of the commons: Individuals in the commons act according to their personal interest, thus depleting the resource
  • Free-rider problem: Individuals enjoy a benefit without contributing back, because there is no cost associated with doing so

The underlying assumption is that without external intervention, individuals will act selfishly, without regard for collective interests.

Typically, this makes the case for two types of intervention: the “market” or the “state”. For example, to address climate change, we’ve tried carbon emissions trading (market) and international negotiations like the Kyoto Protocol (state).

However, Ostrom noticed there are many situations where common resources are allocated efficiently, without intervention from the market or state. She explores, through a series of case studies, why this occurred, and under what conditions we could recreate these situations.

Note that Ostrom focuses on CPRs, which are non-excludable and rivalrous resources (like fisheries, forests, or farmland). CPRs can be overused and depleted, unlike the consumption of public goods (like music, code, or content). However, I think the production of digital public goods often has rivalrous properties. Regardless, this distinction is irrelevant to why I found her work so useful.

I won’t list every condition she came up with, but a few that stuck out to me:

  • Drawing a circle around your community: Defining the boundaries of the commons and closing it to “outsiders”
  • Localization: One policy does not fit all. Rules must be adapted to that particular community
  • Monitoring and enforcement: There is some level of accountability to make sure that rules are followed and decisions are understood

My big takeaway from the patterns Ostrom identified is that sustainably managing the commons requires a high degree of context among participants. Most failure outcomes can be traced back to context collapse. This is true whether you’re an open source project or someone with a large Twitter following.

Ostrom paints an eerily accurate picture of the problems we see today:

…no one communicates, everyone acts independently, no attention is paid to the effects of one’s actions, and the costs of trying to change the structure of the situation are high

Whereas in the sustainable, “smaller-scale” CPRs she looked at,

…individuals repeatedly communicate and interact with one another…[When individuals] have developed shared norms and patterns of reciprocity, they possess social capital with which they can build institutional arrangements for resolving CPR dilemmas.

Ostrom believes that given the right conditions, actors can work together to sustainably manage the commons. That means not leaning on government, foundations, or businesses to solve the problem, but rather recognizing (and trusting!) the community’s ability to regulate itself, so long as individuals have high mutual trust and a low discount rate (i.e., long-term interest in the community). Managing at scale doesn’t mean stuffing more and more people into the same community, but acknowledging boundaries and working together to govern at multiple levels. (Ostrom calls this a “polycentric” approach.)

An important caveat to Ostrom’s work is that she’s not replacing existing game theory, but simply adding to the list of possible outcomes: one in which there is a successful resolution without external intervention. In the end, Ostrom refuses to create a model based on the conditions she identified, insisting only upon a “framework”, because she believes every situation is different and highly localized to the actors involved, and that in itself is one of her main points.

That approach deeply resonates when I consider what it looks like to sustainably manage open source infrastructure. I’ve felt overwhelmed by the differences between communities; it feels daunting to hope for anything that could singlehandedly address it all. Ostrom’s work gives me hope that maybe that’s the point, and rather than trying to “fix” it, perhaps the goal is to understand and catalog these behavioral differences, so that commonalities emerge between them.

Ultimately, however, the power to fix it lies in developers’ hands, and when viewed through that lens, it’s easier to see which solutions are more or less likely to succeed. (Raising money to pay for a major contributor’s work is a high-context, self-organized solution. Paying out bounties to strangers is a low-context solution.)

Finally, although Ostrom was recognized and respected in her lifetime, her theories never made it into the mainstream, whereas more fatalistic options, like prisoner’s dilemma and tragedy of the commons, persist. Why is that the case?

I have two guesses. Firstly, nobody wants to be told the answer is complicated, whereas the other models are simple, even if they’re pessimistic and reductive.

But secondly, maybe her time hadn’t yet come. We’re entering a period where people are distrustful of institutions, where decentralization is the rally-cry. Maybe now is the time to cast aside the market and the state as our saviors, and instead consider an alternative: one that recognizes the ability of people to organize and design solutions for themselves.