The Tragedy of the Commons is a distraction

Last updated on July 8th, 2021 at 04:27 pm

A map of the Boston Common and Public Garden, circa 1890. This is the kind of “common” referred to in the tragedy of the commons.
A map of the Boston Common and Public Garden, circa 1890. By 1890 it was basically a park. But as late as 1830 it was still in use as a cow pasture. Home refrigeration was rare then, except by ice blocks. The best way to get fresh dairy products was to have a cow. In the very early days, 1633-1640, anyone could graze on the Common. But as wealthy people acquired more animals, the common became overgrazed. A 70-cow limit was imposed. That limit stood until 1830. It’s an example of a method for managing a shared resource. This map is from an atlas of Boston published by G.W. Bromley & Co., courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Many believe that technical debt arises, in part, because of a phenomenon known as the Tragedy of the Commons [Hardin 1968]. The Tragedy of the Commons is an allegory that purports to demonstrate how shared resources degrade. It holds that the user communities associated with shared resources inevitably degrade those resources until they’re depleted. The allegory supposedly supports the thesis that only monocratic control of an asset can provide the strict regulation that prevents its inevitable degradation. Advocates of this approach to limiting the degradation arising from the expansion of technical debt hold that assigning sole ownership of resources, resource by resource, is the only effective method of controlling technical debt.

How adherents of the theory manage shared assets

The resources in question here are the assets that tend to accumulate technical debt. Adherents of the theory would impose order by dividing each technological asset into one or more sectors, sometimes called development silos. Each development silo would have one organizational unit designated as the “owner.” Owners have the power to develop, maintain, or extend that sector [Bossavit 2013] [Morris 2012]. They would presumably resolve irreconcilable disagreements about the direction or purpose of a particular sector by branching.

Ironically, such an approach would—and demonstrably does—produce significant technical debt in the form of duplication of artifacts and services. Moreover, it elevates costs relative to a truly shared asset. Costs increase because of reduced sharing and increased need for testing. We can regard such an approach as dysfunctional conflict avoidance [Brenner 2016b].

How adherents apply the theory to explain technical debt

At one time researchers in political economics regarded the Tragedy of the Commons as universally valid. But subsequent research has demonstrated that the principle it describes isn’t generally applicable. Hardin first described the Tragedy of the Commons in 1968, in the form of an allegory [Hardin 1968]. In his words:

Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.

As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?”

Hardin then explains that the logic of the situation compels each herdsman to exploit the shared resource to the maximum. Each herdsman puts his or her own interests ahead of the welfare of the resource.

But the theory doesn’t work

And so it goes, supposedly, with technical debt. Each user of the shared asset expends resources on development, maintenance, and enhancement only to the extent that the immediate need justifies the expenditure. Retiring any legacy technical debt, or any technical debt accumulated in the course of meeting those immediate needs, is regarded as low priority. Because resources for debt retirement are rarely if ever sufficient to meet the need, technical debt grows inexorably. Eventually, the organization abandons the shared asset because it becomes unmaintainable.

However, careful research shows that Hardin’s Commons allegory isn’t applicable to every situation involving shared resources. That same research casts doubt on the validity of the assertion that development silos are necessary in any approach to technical debt management.

Enter Elinor Ostrom

Certainly there are many examples of shared resources degrading along the lines Hardin suggests. An example is the collapse of the Northwest Atlantic cod fishery [Frank 2005]. But many counterexamples exist. Research by the late political economist Elinor Ostrom uncovered numerous examples of complex social schemes for maintaining common resources sustainably [Ostrom 2009] [Ostrom 1990]. Ostrom reported on systems that successfully managed shared resources over long terms—in some cases, centuries. For this work, she received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009.

As Ostrom’s research demonstrated, the problem with Hardin’s allegory is that it applies only to resources open to unregulated use. A World Bank Discussion Paper by Bromley and Cernea [Bromley 1989] clearly describes the misapplication of the Tragedy of the Commons:

For some time now, Hardin’s allegory of the “tragedy” has had remarkable currency among researchers and development practitioners. Not only has it become the dominant paradigm within which social scientists assess natural resource issues, but it appears explicitly and implicitly in the formulation of many programs and projects and in other beliefs and prejudices derived from it. Unfortunately, its capacity for aiding our understanding of resource management regimes falls far short of its power as a metaphor. By confusing an open access regime (a free-for-all) with a common property regime (in which group size and behavioral rules are specified) the metaphor denies the very possibility for resource users to act together and institute checks and balances, rules and sanctions, for their own interaction within a given environment.

Hardin himself later published an extension of the allegory that clarified the role of regulation [Hardin 1998]. Lloyd had observed this much earlier [Lloyd 1833].

The real tragedy of the Tragedy of the Commons

The real tragedy for technology managers would be their failure to learn from the past errors of social scientists and political economists. If they then repeat this now well-understood confusion about the domain of applicability of Hardin’s allegory, they would be compounding the tragedy.

We can apply Ostrom’s result to the problem of managing technical debt if we identify the technical asset as the shared resource. Next we would identify as the community exploiting the resource the stakeholders who employ, develop, maintain, cyber-defend, or extend that technical asset. Ostrom’s results tell us that sustainable exploitation is possible. If the community devises rules, customs, and sanctions that manage the technical debt, the resource is sustainable. Kim and Wood [Kim 2011] provide an analysis that explains how regulation can avert depletion scenarios. Technology managers can apply these lessons to the problem of managing technical debt.

Last words

The Tragedy of the Commons is a distraction. Technical debt isn’t an inevitable result of sharing assets when the organization adheres to a Principle of Sustainability. That principle is that sustainability is possible if the community sharing the asset devises customs, rules, and sanctions that control technical debt. You just can’t have a free-for-all unregulated regime, as most organizations now do. Management and practitioners must collaborate to manage the asset. And regular updating of the customs, rules, and sanctions is probably necessary. Leadership in devising those customs, rules, and sanctions is a job for the policymaker.


[Bossavit 2013] Laurent Bossavit (@Morendil), “Zero Code Ownership will lead to a tragedy-of-the-commons situation, where everybody bemoans how ‘technical debt’ makes their job suck.”, a tweet published April 20, 2013.

Available: here; Retrieved December 29, 2016.

Cited in:

[Brenner 2016b] Richard Brenner. “Some Causes of Scope Creep,” Point Lookout 2:36, September 4, 2002.

Available here; Retrieved December 30, 2016.

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[Bromley 1989] Daniel W. Bromley and Michael M. Cernea. “The Management of Common Property Natural Resources: Some Conceptual and Operational Fallacies.” World Bank Discussion Paper WDP-57. 1989.

Available here; Retrieved December 29, 2016.

Cited in:

[Frank 2005] Frank, Kenneth T., Brian Petrie, Jae S. Choi, William C. Leggett. "Trophic Cascades in a Formerly Cod-Dominated Ecosystem." Science. 308 (5728): 1621–1623. June 10, 2005.

Available here; Retrieved: March 10, 2017.

Cited in:

[Hardin 1968] Garrett Hardin. “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science, 162, 1243-1248 1968.

Available: here; Retrieved December 29, 2016.

Cited in:

[Hardin 1998] Garrett Hardin. “Extensions of ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’,” Science, May 1, 1998: Vol. 280, Issue 5364, 682-683.

Available: here; Retrieved: July 30, 2017

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[Kim 2011] Daniel H. Kim and Virginia Anderson. Systems Archetype Basics: From Story to Structure, Waltham, Massachusetts: Pegasus Communications, Inc., 2011

Available: here; Retrieved: July 4, 2017 Order from Amazon

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[Lloyd 1833] Lloyd, W. F. Two Lectures on the Checks to Population, 1833.

Available: here; Retrieved: July 30, 2017

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[Morris 2012] Ben Morris. “How to manage down the payments on your technical debt,” Ben Morris Software Architecture blog, September 3, 2012.

Available here; Retrieved December 30, 2016. This blog entry contains an assertion that controlling formation of new technical debt requires only “diligence, ownership and governance.”

Cited in:

[Ostrom 1990] Elinor Ostrom. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Cited in:

[Ostrom 2009] Elinor Ostrom. “Beyond the tragedy of commons,” Stockholm whiteboard seminars.

Video, 8:26 min. Apr 3, 2009. here; Retrieved December 29, 2016.

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