Right now, technology is reinvigorating an ancient idea, and that idea could save modern society from environmental destruction and increasing income inequality. That idea is the commons – shared use and shared governance of a shared resource. Traditionally, commons meant shared grazing pastures or forests where anybody could hunt or gather firewood. Commons followed us into cities, as the town squares where we could congregate without invitation and admission fees, or the well-lit streets of collective individual action. Now, commons include knowledge commons, where a community of volunteers edit the world’s largest collection of knowledge: Wikipedia. With global connectivity, we can – and do – share all types of knowledge – lessons, designs, plans, blueprints, software – free and available to all.
However, the idea of the commons still seems invisible, despite its huge and broad impact, which makes me want to write a sort of manifesto about the commons.
This is a bad idea for a lot of reasons.
Lots of brilliant people, like Elinor Ostrom, Peter Linebaugh, Michel Bauwens, David Bollier, Janelle Orsi, already research, write and support the idea of the commons.
Second, the best way to learn about and share an understanding of the commons is to participate in a commons, such as growing in a community garden or dancing at a block party.
Also, a manifesto isn’t quite appropriate, because the commons isn’t really a political movement, though “commoners” can often react politically when their beloved commons is threatened, like internet users faced with SOPA and PIPA. But it’s less of organizing a movement and more a movement of organizing by encouraging and enabling individuals to fulfill needs in their communities through collaborative action.
And a manifesto is a bad idea because a manifesto sounds like a roadmap or promise of utopia. The commons aren’t a garden of eden where we are all nice and share like we learned in kindergarten. Instead, the commons are a tool that we must learn to use and work to use, but a tool that can create resources more sustainable and accessible than created by our almost exclusive use of capitalism now.
Despite all these reasons, I’m continuing to write this uncommon manifesto because ideas are important. A simple, powerful and shared idea can change how we collectively see and understand the world. Which is important, because collective action based on shared understanding is what changes the world.
The evidence about the power of ideas is evident in the way we think about the commons. The idea of the commons was widely changed by a simple and powerful idea, even if that idea wasn’t really about the commons at all. You may have never heard of Garrett Hardin or his 1968 essay, but you’re more likely to be familiar with his idea – the tragedy of the commons. Hardin argued that commons allowed people to maximize their own benefit at the cost of the commons as a whole. In his example, herders would let their cattles overgraze a common pasture, which would eventually destroy the pasture.
Actually, Hardin was talking about an “open-access resource”, not the commons, because a fundamental part of the definition of the commons is the commoning, the shared governance designed to prevent individual overuse and maintain a commons. Which also explains why actual grazing commons have been sustained for centuries.
But I don’t want to debunk the essay, as others have skillfully done; I just want to recognize the power of that idea. We need to develop simple, powerful ideas that allow people to understand the idea of the commons and see how commons are already benefitting their lives.
Many of the simple, powerful ideas that support our capitalist market system and American individualism have a slight flaw, like the misdefinition of the Tragedy of the Commons or forcing you to make an assumption that you can see isn’t true in reality. These ideas persist and thrive, however, because they strike close to values of freedom, fairness, autonomy, and prosperity, close enough to overlook the flaws, closer than any other solution appears.
I believe that the framework of the commons is the missing puzzle piece to allow us to realize the ideals of our values without having to overlook the disastrous results in reality. Promoting and encouraging the use of commons in addition to the market and state provides the most potential for a free and just world where we control our own lives and success. The following ideas are starting places to express the power of the potential of commons.
Governance is as close and as narrow as possible, and only as big of the externality.
Back to Garret Hardin’s essay about the tragedy of the commons for a minute – Hardin argued that if the lack of governance in the use of open-access resources caused the destruction, then the governance provided by private property rights is necessary in order to provide incentives to sustain the resource. Hardin was tragically right about the consequences of the lack of governance in open-access resources like our atmosphere. But there is no effective private property system to own the opportunity to breath fresh air or the opportunity to pollute that shared air for personal profit. And there is no global government to enforce those property rights on behalf of all the people affected.
The idea of a global government is scary to many people and the subject of much conspiracy dread. For good reason – when the rules that govern your actions feel distant and hard to understand, you can feel like you’re out of control and subject to unfair processes. This is a delicate balance, trying to maintain local control while also effectively addressing the problem. This is the concept of subsidiarity, an idea found in Catholic social thought that sometimes pops up in political discourse.
The commons can promote the concept of subsidiarity because it is a framework to provide for shared governance of a single shared resource, narrowing the scope of the governance structure far more than our concept of the state. Through the technological possibilities of the commons, we can develop ways to regulate pollution without trying to recreate property rights in the air, where property markers and meters and bounds have no place.
Everybody has some power, nobody has all power.
The need for limitations on individual power, like the checks and balances of the separate branches of government in the American Constitution, are pretty widely recognized. A powerful idea was created by somebody named Lord Acton, who said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It is vital to check the power of the government, but it’s naïve to believe that corporations can’t also become extremely powerful. Lord Acton is describing a spectrum, more power means more corruption; it’s not a simple 2-sided coin where you either are not corrupt or you have absolute power and a monopoly on force and thus you are absolutely corrupt. We have some tools to limit absolute economic power through anti-trust laws, but they don’t effectively determine when one entity has too much power in controlling a global market. That control can deprive us the little bit of power we have.
Commons can provide an alternative by distributing power, allowing everybody to have some power and nobody to have too much. Platforms allow individuals to reach across the globe for a beneficial transaction; platform commons can allow that to happen without a single entity deciding if they want that transaction to happen and how. Commons don’t have to replace corporations, instead, commons can provide an alternative that allows markets to actually function as theorized.
Alternatives that provide actual choices allow transactions that make everybody better off.
A former mayor of Toledo used to love to say that business is when both people are better off. This was one way to say the principle that lies behind economics, the invisible hand – when people make transactions that benefit their own interest, that results in the most efficient distribution of resources for society. This is widely accepted as true because it recognizes the importance of our autonomy in deciding what is important to us, which we can do better for ourselves than anybody else. There are some major assumptions and caveats, like externalities as I discussed earlier, and whether people are rational and informed, as I’ll discuss at a later date. But the commons provides a clear solution to one major underlying assumption – people are actually making a choice because they have an actual alternative to the choice.
When there isn’t a choice, there’s exploitation. Monopolies can charge outrageous prices that you can’t refuse. People without alternatives will take terrible jobs or do terrible things. The traditional idea of commons provided an alternative: if you could fish, hunt and gather in commons, then you wouldn’t have to submit to wage slavery for survival. Our modern society has largely eliminated these types of commons, but we can provide other kinds of commons that can allow us to meet our needs – community gardens, makerspaces, libraries…
If there are actual alternatives, it may reduce or eliminate regulation. I see this in my everyday job as I’m helping people with their housing problems. Currently, neither government regulation nor market choices ensure that housing is safe. I believe that providing real alternatives to unsafe housing will be more effective than laws against unsafe housing, because those laws require a rare trifecta: good legislation, good administrative enforcement, and good judicial decisons.
This is a rough description of the simple ideas that could underlie a system that encourages commons, like the similar ideas that underlie the state and the market. These ideas aren’t the solutions themselves, but if we see and understand the possibilities of our commons, we can work together to create the solutions. Maybe not on the first try, but honest feedback and reflection will ensure we find it in the end.