Every weekend I take my son and dog for a walk to the park. It is about a half a mile hike over to the park and the park has a mile loop that we love to walk. It is quite the distance for my three year old son who is currently learning how to use the toilet. He has not had to go when we have hiked before, but this week when we passed the park restrooms he wanted to give it a try. When we walked into the bathroom there was a ghastly smell and when we got to the toilet there was dirt and grime all around it. It was apparent that the person who had used the toilet before had not flushed. The restroom also lacked a trash can, so there was toilet paper and garbage scattered across the floor. My son looked up at me said no thank you and that he no longer had to go.

In economics this is called the “Tragedy of the Commons”. The tragedy of the commons is a theory developed by Garret Hardin, that states that people act in their own self-interest and therefore will not put the groups interest above their own. In doing this people will deplete or destroy natural resources, because there is no group interest to the individual. Most people like to use fisheries as their example. In this scenario the water is viewed as a public good and the fishermen are allowed to fish unregulated. People will fish until there is no more fish because they want to out compete their competition before the fish run out. In the process of competing on public land they destroy the wildlife and the business. Many people then conclude that we should create laws and regulations that would stop over fishing, but I have another answer.

In a free market there needs to be strict property rights. This idea is derived from self-ownership meaning that people own themselves. We are viewed as our own property. People are not allowed to infringe on your body nor on your property. When we look at the examples above we see that there is no property rights and thus the environment is being abused, because there is no responsibility. Most people respond with the use of force to maintain responsibility, but I am more inclined to a peaceful voluntary society. By having property rights people would maintain their responsibility of the land because it is in their own self-interest.

In the example of the park bathrooms we see a park created and sustained through a monopoly and enforced through taxes. This is not to say that I do not enjoy the park personally, but I think that if there were competition among the parks our parks would be cleaner and my son would be more likely to use their restroom. This can be shown through private enterprises that we have today such as your own personal house. Does your house bathroom ever resemble a park bathroom? Some people might respond that their house does not have as many people using the bathroom, therefore it is not as nasty as the park bathroom. This is a good point, so lets use hotels, restaurants, or churches as our examples. All of these have restrooms are used by far many people than a small park, yet when compared to them they are of much higher quality. The businesses have a self interest of pleasing their customers. If a customer goes to a restaurant then needs to use the restroom and it looks like a park restroom, they will most likely leave considering all the people making their food use that restroom.

In the example of the fisheries, we have public land again owned by no one. Thus the land is abused. If one person or several people owned specific parts of the body of water they would have a self-interest in maintaining the wildlife. The regulations that are put on public lands usually restrict a person, but a private business would not want to restrict you. In fact, they would want you to spend money at their establishment. One way that they might use their fishier is to charge people per fish or per lbs of the fish. This way people who wanted to fish more could, but the owners could use that money to restock the body of water. By having voluntary interactions both the owner of the body of water and the customer are pleased.

When we have public goods we have the tragedy of the commons and everyone is unsatisfied. The businesses that were making money off the land have now destroyed it have no other means to make money thus they are not happy. The environmentalists are upset because these selfish businesses have destroyed the land. The people are discontent because the land surrounding their property has been devalued or polluted and therefore has lowered their property value. No one likes the effects of the tragedy of the commons, so I suggest that we join my three year old son and say, “No thank you” to public lands or involuntary means of maintaining this tragic system.