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The Tragedy of the Commons; the Evil Elinor Ostrom

—–Original Message—–
From: RW
Sent: Thursday, January 19, 2017 10:58 AM
To: wblock@loyno.edu
Subject: The Tragedy of the Commons and Incentives
Dear Professor Block, I am a first year Philosophy PhD student and identify as a left-libertarian. I am currently researching the tragedy of the commons and my supervisor takes the view that this is an ‘aggregative harm’ (a harm caused by no one individual but instead by a group of individuals) and that it is best solved by forming a collective which regulates how individuals use the commons and which promotes ’the common good’. I disagree with this analysis. I first want to argue that the main problem with the tragedy of the commons is that no individual has an incentive to preserve it (in fact, they have an incentive to use it quickly before someone else uses it all up!), and that private property rights are a better way to address this incentive problem since private property rights now give individual users a personal stake in how their bit of the commons is treated. I was wondering if you could recommend any papers which would be a good place to start this sort of response. Thank you very much. Kind regards, RW

Dear RW: You don’t sound like a left libertarian to me. Rather, you sound like a sensible libertarian, neither right nor left. Yes, I entirely agree with you about the tragedy of the commons, a mainstay of the free market environmentalist defense of private property rights. Perhaps the most sophisticated critic of the concept, the tragedy of the commons, is the evil Elinor Ostrom, recent Nobel Prize winner.

Here are some critiques of her:

Block, Walter E. 2011. Review essay of Ostrom, Elinor. 1990. Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge, UK and New York, NY: Cambridge University Press; in Libertarian Papers, Vol. 3, Art. 21; http://libertarianpapers.org/2011/21-block-review-of-ostroms-governing-the-commons/

Jankovic, Ivan and Walter E. Block. 2016. “Tragedy of the Partnership: A Critique of Elinor Ostrom.” American Journal of Economics and Sociology. Volume 75, Issue 2, pages 289–318; http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ajes.12141/abstract; http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ajes.12141/full; http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ajes.12141/references; http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ajes.2016.75.issue-2/issuetoc

here is some material on thick libertarianism, along with some criticisms:

For advocates of thick libertarianism, see Gilllespie and Welch, 2011; Johnson, 2008A, 2008B, 2013; Long, 2007, 2008A, 2008B; Reisenwitz, 2013; Richman, 2014A, 2014B, 2014C, 2014D; Tucker, 2014; Vallier, 2013, 2014; Zwolinski, 2011

Gillespie, Nick and Matt Welch. 2011. The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong With America.. Public Affairs.

Johnson, Charles. 2008A. “Libertarianism: Through Thick and Thin.” The Freeman, Vol. 58, No. 6, July, http://www.thefreemanonline.org/featured/libertarianism-through-thick-and-thin/;

Johnson, Charles. 2008B. “Libertarianism through Thick and Thin.” October 3;

Libertarianism through Thick and Thin

Johnson, Charles. 2013. “Libertarianism through Thick and Thin.” July 20;

Libertarianism through Thick and Thin

Long, Roderick. 2007. “The Plot Thickens.” November 3;

The Plot Thickens

Long, Roderick. 2008A. “Thickness Unto Death.” July 10;

Thickness Unto Death

Long, Roderick. 2008B. “Monster Thickburger Libertarianism.” July 24;

Monster Thickburger Libertarianism

Reisenwitz, Cathy. 2013. “Thick and thin libertarianism and Tom Woods.” December 23; http://cathyreisenwitz.com/blog/2013/12/23/thick-and-thin-libertarianism-and-tom-woods/

Richman, Sheldon. 2014A. “TGIF: In Praise of ‘Thick’ Libertarianism.” April 4.

TGIF: In Praise of “Thick” Libertarianism

Richman, Sheldon. 2014B. “Libertarianism is more than just rejecting force: the ‘thick’ and ‘thin’ of libertarian philosophy.” April 6; http://reason.com/archives/2014/04/06/a-libertarian-opposition-to-racism

Richman, Sheldon. 2014C. “TGIF: Libertarianism Rightly Conceived.” May 2;

TGIF: Libertarianism Rightly Conceived

Richman, Sheldon. 2014D. “What Social Animals Owe Each Other.” July 1;

What Social Animals Owe Each Other

Tucker, Jeffrey. 2014. “Against libertarian brutalism: Will libertarianism be brutalist or humanitarian? Everyone needs to decide.” The Freeman. March 12; http://www.fee.org/the_freeman/detail/against-libertarian-brutalism

Vallier, Kevin. 2013. “Libertarian Social Morality: Progressive, Conservative or Liberal?” February 22; http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2013/02/libertarian-social-morality-progressive-conservative-or-liberal/

Vallier, Kevin. 2014. “Political Libertarianism: Between Thick and Thin.” May 7; http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2014/05/political-libertarianism-between-thick-and-thin/

Zwolinski, Matt. 2011. “Libertarianism: Thick and Thin.” December 28;

Libertarianism: Thick and Thin

For critics of thick libertarianism, e.g., supporters of thin libertarianism, see Albright, 2014; Block,2014A, 2014B, 2014C, Forthcoming; Bonneau, 2014A, 2014B; Cantwell, 2014; Gordon, 2011; Hornberger, 2014; McCaskey, 2014; Montgomery and Block, 2016; Mosquito, 2014A, 2014B, 2016C; Rockwell, 2014; Sanchez, 2014; Smith, 2014; Vance, 2014; Wenzel, 2014A, 2014B; Williamson and Block, forthcoming; Woods, 2013.

Albright, Logan. 2014. “What Libertarianism Is Not.” April 26; http://mises.ca/posts/blog/what-libertarianism-is-not/

Block, Walter E. 2014A. “Pure libertarianism.” May 17; http://libertycrier.com/pure-libertarianism/?utm_source=The+Liberty+Crier&utm_campaign=3efef33935-The_Liberty_Crier_5_17_2014&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_600843dec4-3efef33935-284768769; http://www.lewrockwell.com/2014/05/walter-e-block/pure-libertarianism/; http://www.economicpolicyjournal.com/2014/05/on-pure-libertarianism.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+economicpolicyjournal%2FKpwH+%28EconomicPolicyJournal.com%29; http://libertycrier.com/pure-libertarianism/?utm_source=The+Liberty+Crier&utm_campaign=8cd483dafc-The_Liberty_Crier_5_19_2014&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_600843dec4-8cd483dafc-284768769.

Block, Walter E. 2014B. “Was Murray Rothbard a Thick Libertarian?” May 23;
http://www.economicpolicyjournal.com/2014/05/was-murray-rothbard-thick-libertarian.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+economicpolicyjournal%2FKpwH+%28EconomicPolicyJournal.com%29; http://lionsofliberty.com/2014/05/26/mondays-with-murray-walter-block-on-rothbards-thick-libertarianism/; http://www.economicpolicyjournal.com/2014/06/walter-block-on-ayn-rand-murray.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+economicpolicyjournal%2FKpwH+%28EconomicPolicyJournal.com%29.

Block, Walter E. 2014C. “Was Murray Rothbard a Thick Libertarian? Part II” May 23; http://www.economicpolicyjournal.com/2014/05/was-murray-rothbard-thick-libertarian_23.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+economicpolicyjournal%2FKpwH+%28EconomicPolicyJournal.com%29.

Block, Walter E. Forthcoming. “Thin and thick libertarianism” Political Dialogues: Journal of Political Theory

Bonneau, Paul. 2014A. “Some Reasons for Libertarians to NOT Reject the Non-Aggression Principle.” February 12; http://strike-the-root.com/some-reasons-for-libertarians-to-not-reject-non-aggression-principle

Bonneau, Paul. 2014B. “A Critique of ‘Against Libertarian Brutalism’.” March 16; http://strike-the-root.com/critique-of-against-libertarian-brutalism

Block, Walter E. Forthcoming. “Thin and thick libertarianism” Political Dialogues: Journal of Political Theory

Cantwell, Christopher. 2014. “Jeffrey Tucker Reduces Core Libertarian Ideals To ‘Brutalism’”. March 12; http://www.christophercantwell.com/2014/03/12/jeffrey-tuckers-case-libertarianism

Gordon, David. 2011. “What Is Libertarianism?” August 29;


Hornberger, Jacob. 2014. “The Virtues of Libertarianism.” May 15;

The Virtues of Libertarianism

McCaskey, John P. 2014. “New Libertarians: New Promoters of a Welfare State.” April 14;


Montgomery, Stephen and Walter E. Block. 2016. “Animal torture and thick libertarianism.” Review of Social and Economic Issues (RSEI), Vol. 1, No. 3, Spring, pp. 105-116. http://rsei.rau.ro/images/V1N3/Articol_5.pdf
Mosquito, Bionic. 2014A. “Sheldon Richman Takes Down Walter Block & Lew Rockwell?” May 3; http://www.economicpolicyjournal.com/2014/05/sheldon-richman-takes-down-walter-block.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+economicpolicyjournal%2FKpwH+%28EconomicPolicyJournal.com%29

Mosquito, Bionic. 2014B. “On Thick, BIG Libertarians.” August 6;


Mosquito, Bionic. 2016C. “The Real Action is in the Reaction of the Opposition.” January 11; https://www.lewrockwell.com/2016/01/bionic-mosquito/open-borders-saul-alinsky/

Rockwell, Lew. 2014. “The Current Libertarian Infighting and the Future of Libertarianism.” May 1; https://www.lewrockwell.com/2014/05/lew-rockwell/the-future-of-libertarianism/; http://www.economicpolicyjournal.com/2014/05/the-current-libertarian-infighting-and.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+economicpolicyjournal%2FKpwH+%28EconomicPolicyJournal.com%29

Sanchez, Dan. 2014. “Sophistry and the State: The Perils of Fuzzy (Thick) Thinking.” May 10; https://www.lewrockwell.com/2014/05/dan-sanchez/the-perils-of-thick-thinking/

Smith, J. Neil. 2014. “Thick as a brick.” May 2; http://beforeitsnews.com/alternative/2014/05/thick-as-a-brick-2949630.html

Vance, Laurence M. 2014. “I Am a Libertarian.” May 6;


Wenzel, Robert. 2014A. “A Note on the Difference Between Libertarians and Libwaps.” May 1;


Wenzel, Robert. 2014B. “It’s Here: Libertarian-Socialism.” June 14;


Williamson, Kenn and Walter E. Block. Unpublished. “Is libertarianism thick or thin? Thin!”

Woods, Tom. 2013. “Thick and Thin Libertarianism, and Duck Dynasty.” December 19;


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