Managing the Commons- Eight Principles to Self-Govern

Dan Matisoff
Dan Matisoff
Associate Professor

How would you define this BIG IDEA?

In 1968, Garrett Hardin postulated that humans were doomed to suboptimal outcomes, due to the tragedy of the commons. Individuals behaving rationally would lead to overconsumption and thus, collectively suboptimal outcomes. He, and many who came after, argued that the solutions to this tragedy were either privatization of a resource, or alternatively government control and top-down regulation.

But decades of research have demonstrated that local communities have demonstrated the capacity to avoid this “tragedy” through the formation of institutions that are collectively designed, monitored, and enforced. In Elinor Ostrom’s seminal book “Governing the Commons” she argues that by forming institutions that follow 8 principles can allow communities to avoid the tragedy of the commons and collectively self govern collective (or “common pool”) resources.

These 8 principles are:

  1. Boundaries of users and resource are clear
  2. Congruence between benefits and costs
  3. Users had procedures for making own rules
  4. Regular monitoring of users and resource conditions
  5. Graduated sanctions
  6. Conflict resolution mechanisms
  7. Minimal recognition of rights by government
  8. Nested enterprises

Subsequent research has demonstrated that by improving trust through face-to-face communication, users of a resource are more likely to be able to devise rules and creative solutions that help sustain a local resource. This research has become the basis for extensions such as collaborative resource management, conceptions of complex socio-ecological systems and their management, and the principles of resilience and robustness.

How does this BIG IDEA about sustainable communities play out in your work?

This body of research, as a whole, guides the formation of institutions designed to govern a resource and facilitate collective action. In particular, it focuses on the facilitation of cooperation, and how this cooperation can lead humans to overcome the tragedy of the commons without privatization or government intervention. One strand of my research, for example, has attempted to test the extent to which adherence with these principles allow users to increase volunteerism and form stronger communities, and how in turn, these stronger communities lead to improved management of the commons. Another strand examines how institutions can be designed that encourage firms to improve environmental behavior.

Learn more:

Summary of the Governing the Commons (1990) and implications for community and collective action.

1999 Science article by Ostrom (and others) discussing how lessons about local commons management can be applied to global challenges

2003 Science article by Dietz, Ostrom, and Stern that introduces the concept of polycentricity, and how self-organized institutions can be layered and scaled to manage global problems.