Overfishing. Pollution. Littering. All of these are ways in which society as a whole misuses common resources (in these cases, animal populations, the environment, and public spaces). These resources are all subject to a phenomenon known as the Tragedy of the Commons, a situation in which everyone has an incentive to use as much of a shared resource as possible but no one has an inherent incentive to maintain it. Fixing the problem involves individuals making decisions that make them worse off while everyone else benefits.
Take littering in a public park as an example. Say there are 100 people who frequent a certain park and all of them are chronic litterers. Without external regulations (in this case, a fine for littering), no one has an incentive to stop littering. And no one is going to bother picking up the trash, since one person could spend all day cleaning the park and–because of the 99 other people still littering with abandon–never have a chance to enjoy the benefits of their labor.
Examples of these types of negative externalities are easy to find. Unsustainable logging. Overuse of nonrenewable energy sources. Traffic. But are there situations in which it works the other way? A kind of Comedy of the Commons?
In 1986, Carol M. Rose addressed this in a paper titled “The Comedy of the Commons: Commerce, Custom, and Inherently Public Property.” Rose highlights situations in which public access to a resource increases the benefit that each user receives from that resource. For example, recreational spaces, since “recreation is often carried on in a social setting, and therefore it clearly improves with scale to some degree” (779). Free speech is also cited by Rose as “a practice with infinite returns to scale” (778); since exposure to a larger number of a wider variety of ideas is generally accepted to be beneficial to individuals.
In recent years, the internet has provided for a number of goods with these types of positive externalities. Review websites, for example (be they book reviews, movie reviews, product reviews, etc.). The benefit that reviewers receive from writing reviews may be relatively small. However, a greater amount of utility is collectively gained by review readers (who may find a product they really love or avoid a product they would have hated) and the creator of the product (who benefits from the free publicity from the review). Informational databases, such as Wikipedia, are another example. Editors spend time–largely unpaid–writing, editing, and maintaining articles so that other people can have access to the same information to which those editors have access.
Unfortunately, examples of these types of Comedies of the Commons are much more difficult to come by than are examples of Tragedies of the Commons. Perhaps this is for the best, since negative externalities are in more need of being addressed and resolved. However, it is important not to lose sight of the existence of positive externalities as a whole.
Rose, Carol M., “The Comedy of the Commons: Commerce, Custom, and Inherently Public Property” (1986). Faculty
Scholarship Series. Paper 1828. http://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/fss_papers/1828