The Tragedy of the Commons

The Tragedy of the Commons was originally presented as an essay in 1833 by the British economist William Forster Lloyd, then reintroduced by Garrett Hardin in 1968, though it was Aristotle who first proposed that “what is common to many is taken least care of, for all men have greater regard for what is their own than for what they possess in common with others.” 

Lloyd tells the story of common land used for grazing sheep.  Over grazing the fields will lead to the destruction of the very resource necessary for their success, however, the more sheep they have, the more profit they will realize and their own sheep only represents a fraction of the total sheep grazing on the land.  Without regulating the numbers of sheep grazing on the common field, the growing sheep population eventually leads to the failure of the land to support further grazing.  If only the farmers focused on the needs of their collective group, rather than their individual needs, all would benefit.  The tale is often told to support the regulation of the environment though it also can be applied for efforts to regulate family size, institute traffic rules and vehicle standards, and to apply COVID mandates.

While individuals believe that the decision to wear masks or to get vaccinated is purely an individual choice, it is a public choice as well.  Both actions contribute toward reducing the spread of the virus across the public.  “Joe Public,” however, may not be considered a member of our circle of families and friends.  Additionally, like the individual farmer’s sheep grazing on the common land, these individual decisions may appear inconsequential in the scope of a global pandemic.  

There has been quite a bit of Facebook chatter about individual rights related to becoming vaccinated or wearing masks.  If each of us lived in a bubble, individual rights would supersede all else; however, like it or not, we are members of a society.  Our actions contribute toward the overall health of Joe Public.

The physician of Joe Public is an epidemiologist.  Unlike general practitioners, the concerns of epidemiologists lie not with individuals but with the masses.  Statistics, infection rates, and probabilities take the place of body temperature, blood pressure, and laboratory tests.  Shoppers wearing masks in stores and children wearing masks in schools is not only about protecting the health of individual shoppers and children but is a means of reducing the spread of the virus across the population and improving the health of Joe Public.  

Parents and educators are not epidemiologists.  Our concerns lie with the individuals in our care.  We see what is in front of us and lack the training to extrapolate from the present conditions to what might befall us in the future.  Yet, we have been asked to develop policies that are, in essence, means to protect Joe Public.  Moreover, as Americans, we are taught at an early age to value individual freedoms, labeling anything less as “socialist.” We are pushed and pulled in two directions.

As an American, a district leader, an educator, a scientist with degrees in chemistry and environmental science, a parent, a daughter of elderly parents, and a member of a community, these next few weeks of preparations for the school year will be focused on finding common ground, balancing individual rights with public good, listening to divergent views, and making difficult decisions.  Whether the final decision is one you agree with or oppose, I hope you know that this decision will not be made lightly; our children and our community depend upon us.

Although I first learned of the Tragedy of the Commons in graduate school for environmental studies, I reread articles on the topic for details, including the Aristotle reference, which can be found on this site:  Additional information about this concept can be found at:

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