Tragedy of the commons is a phenomenon which is characterized by individuals acting in their own self-interest in a way that results in costs being imposed on someone else or on society in general. For instance, when a company dumps its waste products into a river thus polluting that river, that company is imposing costs on society rather than on itself to clean it up. If it didn't impose that cost on society, its profits would be reduced since it would have to pay to clean up its own waste products. There are many other ways that a company or a group of people or an individual tries to increase its own profits or welfare by imposing costs on another segment of society. Another example is when dog owners let their pets defecate on the sidewalk and then don't clean up after them. Costs are imposed on someone else to clean up, or, when someone steps in it, a cost is imposed on them to have to deal with that. One of the biggest heists in this regard is the imposition of national debt on future generations. Rather than pay for stuff we are consuming now, we are borrowing the money, running up huge debts and leaving the task of paying them off to another group of people, namely, future generations.
Immigrants to New England in the 17th century formed villages in which they had privately owned homesteads and gardens, but they also set aside community-owned pastures, called commons, where all of the villagers' livestock could graze. Settlers had an incentive to avoid overuse of their private lands, so they would remain productive in the future. However, this self-interested stewardship of private lands did not extend to the commons. As a result, the commons were overgrazed and degenerated to the point that they were no longer able to support the villagers' cattle. This failure of private incentives to provide adequate maintenance of public resources is known to economists as "the tragedy of the commons."
So overusing and not being a good steward of public resources while maximizing private profits is the essence of the tragedy of the commons. Well now, under the Bush administration, the essence of their approach to government is just that: denigrate and deteriorate public resources while maximizing benefits to private interests, namely corporations and the wealthy. That's what cronyisn is all about. Drain public resources including the Treasury while siphoning resources to the chosen few. Government not "for the people" but for the wealthy. Government not "by the people" but by lobbyists. Government not "of the people" but of the unitary executive. This accords with their philosophy of reducing the public sphere to a minimum while maximizing the private sphere. Denigrating government maximizes private profit.
Bush (and the Republican Presidents in general starting with Reagan) has specialized in this brand of imposing the costs on others while enjoying the benefits themselves. The motto is "we'll enjoy this now while others will pay later." This is a tragedy of the commons. Rather than paying for what we consume, or paying the costs of what we produce, some of the costs are imposed on others thereby increasing either our profits or our benefit or our enjoyment. It all amounts to the same thing.
When a company makes a "mistake" and the mistake redounds to their benefit because it imposes a cost on others, this is a tragedy of the commons. For instance, if I cancel, say, a phone company service and the next month I still get a bill, their mistake in not canceling when I asked to be canceled means that I'm billed when I shouldn't have been. Either I have to pay when I shouldn't have had to pay which increases their profits or I have to get put on hold trying to connect with customer service to try and get the matter rectified. Either way a cost is imposed on me rather than the company or person who made the "mistake." Companies have figured out that mistakes that they or their representatives make which impose costs on their customers are good mistakes, and, I'm sure, that their employees are rewarded for making them. Of course, they wouldn't be rewarded if the mistakes imposed costs on them rather than their customers.
Of course, the largest commons is the atmosphere. We all breathe this resource and without the oxygen it provides we would die. And we pour all kinds of waste products into it. Just like we pour waste products into rivers and then drink the water (also necessary to life), we dump tons of pollutants into this commons and then are forced to breathe the results. There isn't a direct cause and effect link between the pollutants in the atmosphere and the increased incidence of asthma and cancer nor is there a direct link between pollutant dumping and increased tornadoes and hurricanes, but intelligent human beings (scientists) have warned us that the link is there. The privatizers tell us not to worry; they're eager to sell us all private oxygen supplies. We will have to buy our own oxygen supply to carry with us and breathe at all times. Those who can't afford it will die. Corporations are salivating at the billions of dollars in profits this industry will provide. Already, they are selling us privatized water supplies (bottled water) as public water supplies dwindle in quantity and quality.
Global warming is the ultimate tragedy of the commons. Private corporations and individuals dump their waste into the fragile atmosphere, that not only sustains life by providing oxygen to individual breathers but also determines our weather. Thus it has a two fold function. Changing the chemical composition of the atmosphere is not a good idea but that is exactly what we are doing by dumping carbon dioxide into it. But, although we know how to stop doing this (get a plug in hybrid and fill 'er up with solar panels), there are vested interests interested in selling us oil and oil burning vehicles. Vested interests are only interested in their short term private profits not in the long range interest of the public commons and the common interests of the human race. If they can convert any public commodity into a privatized one that can be bought, sold and commodified, they will. This applies to water and air also.
So whether it's pollution, fiscal irresponsibility or "mistakes," all these things can be tragedies of the commons if people don't clean up after themselves (so someone else has to do it), if people try to get other people to pay for things that increase their own profits or if individuals or governments try to increase their profits or tax cuts at others' (namely future generations) expense. A good case in point is tax cuts for wealthy individuals now, paid for by borrowing money from the Chinese and Arabs, to be paid for by future taxes on the poor and middle class. Responsible individuals or companies or governments would provide a true accounting by paying all costs associated with their activity or production and then their profit or enjoyment would be legitimate and not brought about by imposing costs on others. This would be good stewardship also known as fiscal responsibility and also caring about the human race in general and not just selfish, private interests.