The Tragedy of the Commons


Why are private property rights so important in producing a thriving economy? Part of the answer is explained by discussing the theory of the tragedy of the commons. Imagine in the covered wagon days an apple orchard growing wild somewhere along the Oregon Trail. So the first wagon train finds it, and takes all of the ripe apples – more than they really need, but if they don’t take them someone else will. Then the next wagon train comes by, sees the mostly unripe apples on the trees, but takes them anyway, because if they don’t someone else will, and they can always feed them to their oxen. The next wagon train sees there are barely any apples, but they can always use some firewood, so they chop the trees down. Why not, because if they don’t, someone else will. That is the tragedy of the commons: the apples, the trees, the fish in the ocean, the water in the rivers – instead of being husbanded and protected, all will be plundered, “because if we don’t someone else will.”

But with Liberty, in the form of private property rights, the outcome would change. The owner of the apple trees would price them at a competitive rate, so the first wagon train would only purchase what they really needed. Of course, then apples would also be available for the many wagon trains to come. And, since the future apples would be worth more to the owner than selling the trees for firewood, not only would the trees not be chopped down, they would actually be watered, cultivated and fed, because that would bring a better crop for the owner to sell in the future. In other words, and as anyone with an understanding of economics will tell you, incentives matter! So with incentives for the owners to maximize their profits, as facilitated by private property rights, there will be more good apples for everyone!

Judge Jim Gray (Ret.)
2012 Libertarian candidate for Vice President, along with
Governor Gary Johnson as the candidate for President