The tragedy of the commons, central control, and the environment


The tragedy of common  refers to an economic theory in which individuals or firms use shared resources independently in accordance to their own wish and consumption (Yandle, 1997). In return, this has always resulted in overuse, misuse and pollution to the extent that the future dependability of such resources becomes at stake. This work reviews some of the drawbacks that are common in central control of pollution, how central control can be made more effective as well as the possible alternative to central control.

Drawbacks that are common in central control of pollution

The tragedy of common is associated with the problem of pollution with regard to what individual people or firms put in say, a river. This has always been a result of the cost comparison between unresponsive disposal or discharge within the commons and responsive ones. Unresponsive disposal entails putting materials within the commons before purifying to remove any waste that might pose danger to other dependents. Companies find it much cheaper to dispose their affluents in a nearby river without purification. Central control of pollution, however, can not be applied in this scenario since the areas of their discharge such as a river or air cannot be ‘fenced’ in order to centralize the discharge and protect the other population (Yandle, 1997).

Another drawback of central control lies in the timing and temporary property right accorded to different families in a bid to reduce over exploitation of public resources. This has been applied in monitoring and control of grazing in a public pasture as well as fishing to overcome overgrazing and over fishing respectively. However, the problem arises when different families have different stock size, thus timing without consideration to stock size does not well represent equitable control. Similarly, different fisheries have different capture method and mechanization. To some capture methods coupled with mechanization, even when fishing is only limited to one hour a day, it can as well result in over fishing when repeated over time.

How central control can be made more effective

With regard to the above problems associated with central control, effectiveness in achieving desired outcomes can be  sorted by enactment and adherence to the rule of law as well as checking all the other factors involved in controlling the size of exploitation. For example, when the rule of law is enacted that only allow industrial effluents to be discharged after treatment, then even though the process would be costly to the industries, their existence would only be based on the total adherence to the rule of law. In the process, there is a mutual benefit as both the company and the population do not affect each other negatively (Yandle, 1983).

Similarly, when all other factors affecting exploitation of a public resources are put into consideration, a much more effective central control can be achieved. For example, in the case of controlling over fishing and over grazing, before deciding on the timing, it would be better when:  stock size, field size, availability of pasture, fishing method, predicted fish population (which should always be above threshold) among other factors are considered.

Possible alternative to central control

Based on the drawbacks of central control, this review recommends privatization and strict federal laws as possible alternatives to the central control system. Privatization refers to the transfer of ownership of a public resource or property to an individual or private entity. Individual firms become more responsible when they deal with their own facilities than when dealing with public facility. Under privatization, there will be a greater desire from within to conserve, recycle and reuse some of the resources to ensure continuous replication and usability. In addition, strict federal laws that govern the usage of public resources can equally provide an alternative to the central control especially when the rules have adverse penalties. In the process of trying to avoid such penalties, companies must be forced to comply (Yandle, 1983).



Yandle, B. (1997). Common Sense and Common Law for the Environment: Creating Wealth in Hummingbird Economies. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Yandle, B. (1983). Bootleggers and baptists-the education of a regulatory economists. Regulation, 7, 12.


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