William Paley on the tragedy of the commons (1785)

William Paley

The English moral philosopher William Paley (1743-1805) discussed the problems created by the communal ownership of property. He was aware of the incentive problem as well as this early formulation of the “tragedy of the commons”:

We may judge what would be the effects of a community of right to the productions of the earth, from the trifling specimens which we see of it at present. A cherry-tree in a hedge-row, nuts in a wood, the grass of an unstinted pasture, are seldom of much advantage to any body, because people do not wait for the proper season of reaping them. Corn, if any were sown, would never ripen; lambs and calves would never grow up to sheep and cows, because the first person that met them would reflect, that he had better take them as they are, than leave them for another.

Paley’s Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (1785) was an influential work which helped lay the foundations for the philosophy of utilitarianism in England in the late 18th century. In two short chapters on property he discusses a number of key issues. He the first he has an amusing story about a flock of pigeons which, without property rights, has no way of rationally allocating property to different members of the flock. In the second he lists four main reasons why property is useful: it increases the productivity of the land, it encourages rational land use by enabling owners to keep the product of what they sow, the enforcement of property rights reduces conflict between owners, and it makes the division of labor possible. The second reason is especially interesting as it is an early formulation of what is now caused “the tragedy of the commons.” Without property rights, he states, “the first person that met them (unripened corn, lambs, and calves) would reflect, that he had better take them as they are, than leave them for another.”