Pat Mulroy and “the tragedy of the anticommons”

Lea-Rachel Kosnick, in a paper a few years back, described the “tragedy of the anticommons”. In a classic “tragedy of the commons,” every pumper is sticking their straw into an aquifer and sucking it out, with no incentive to conserve because the other folks will just take the rest anyway. In the “anticommons” example, there are sane solutions out there, but too many people are positioned to block them.

The commons can lead to the “Tragedy of the Commons,” where uncoordinated utilization of a good can lead to its overuse, and symmetrically, the anticommons can lead to the “Tragedy of the Anticommons,” where poor collective management can lead to suboptimal use of the resource.

Pat Mulroy, former head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, pointedly raised this problem at the March 19 California Water Policy Forum:

We are very, very good at blocking. Anybody can stop anything. What we can’t do or can’t seem to do is find a structure within which to say yes. You will never have enough science, you will never have enough data, but at some point, something has to change.

Huge thanks to Chris Austin for posting the text of Mulroy’s remarks, which as usual are interesting throughout.


  1. In the original usage, say in England or the Alps, a “commons” is not simply a resource that everyone can use; its not a free-for all, as say oceanic fishery is. A commons is a resource managed by a large but well-defined group of people. So the “tragedy of the commons” is badly mis-named.

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