Before the Tragedy of the Commons: Early Modern Economic Considerations of the Public Use of Natural Resources

Nathaniel Wolloch


This article distinguishes between the precise legal and economic approach to the commons used by Hardin and many other modern commentators, and the broader post-Hardinian concept utilized in environmentally-oriented discussions and aiming to limit the use of the commons for the sake of preservation. Particularly in the latter case, it is claimed, any notion of the tragedy of the commons is distinctly a modern twentieth-century one, and was foreign to the early modern and even nineteenth-century outlooks. This was true of the early modern mercantilists, and also of classical political economists such as Adam Smith and even, surprisingly, Malthus, as well as of Jevons and his neoclassical discussion aimed at maximizing the long-term use of Britain’s coal reserves. One intellectual who did recognize the problematic possibility of leaving some tracts of land in their pristine condition to answer humanity’s need for a spiritual connection with nature was J. S. Mill, but even he regarded this as in essence almost a utopian ideal. The notion of the tragedy of the commons in its broader sense is therefore a distinctly modern one.

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