Phi Beta Cons

The Flip Side of the Tragedy of the Commons

You’ve no doubt read much about the tragedy of the commons, which involves waste because common ownership leads to overuse. Nobody can say “no.”

It turns out that there is a flip side to that problem, known as the tragedy of the anti-commons. That occurs when it’s impossible for the owners to get to “yes” and therefore property is underused. In this week’s Pope Center Clarion Call, Jane Shaw explores the ramifications of the anti-commons problem in higher education. Because colleges and universities have so many “owners” (not in the usual sense, but in the “stakeholder” sense of control over decisions), it is difficult for them to make decisions. Put another way, it’s easy for campus groups, especially the faculty, to veto anything they don’t like.

The anti-commons problem is apt, she argues, to hinder college leaders as they try to make quick adjustments to changing circumstances in the future. Whether some schools survive or not might depend on their ability to overcome the anti-commons problem.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

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