David Bollier Replies
8 The respondents to my essay raise a number of valuable
questions and propose a number of useful new avenues of thinking,
strategy, and political engagement.
A central issue for some is the
utility of "the commons" as a category of rhetoric and analysis.
Is the idea of the commons so elastic that it threatens to snap,
as Nicholas Johnson suggests? To be sure, my usage of the term
is broader than customary usage. But "the market" is also a versatile
term applied in diverse circumstances. Why not "the commons"?
We need a cogent yet flexible term to describe the many shared,
public aspects of our political economy and culture.
Richard Parker may be right that,
in the abstract, the commons has "no plausibly determinate implications."
That remains to be seen. But surely a movement can arise and articulate
its own specific understanding of the commons in an American context.
This new discourse must be rooted in democratic norms and practice,
as Parker insists. But public policy has an important role in
supporting the commons, just as it generously supports countless
Alone among the respondents, Tom
Palmer is hostile to the very idea of the commons except in very
limited senses (Elinor Ostrom's eight principles for common-pool
resources) or marginal manifestations (tiny Swiss villages). By
raising the bar so high for even acknowledging the existence of
a commons, Palmer tries to define them out of existence. This,
of course, is a central project of libertarian ideology—to
assign ownership rights exclusively to individuals and to limit
or eradicate governmental vehicles for protecting community interests.
In seeking to defend conventional
notions of property, Palmer tries to de-legitimate various commons
by saying there is no real "ownership" present. Ownership requires
exclusion, he points out, and where is the exclusion in the management
of the GNU/Linux software, community gardens, or Alcoholics Anonymous?
Certain commons do entail exclusion,
including the ones he cites. The GNU General Public License is
a legal vehicle for excluding those who would seek to privatize
the common software code; everyone else is invited to participate
in the software-development commons. Citizen-managed stakeholder
trusts also preserve the commons through exclusion; they exclude
politicians and private corporations from controlling public resources
and instead vest that power with a broad stakeholder base. The
land trusts that own dozens of the community gardens in New York
City are another form of exclusion, what Professor Carol Rose
has called "property on the outside, commons on the inside." So,
contrary to Palmer's assertion, some forms of exclusion are at
But the real point is that the
commons represents a different kind of "ownership" and "property"
than conventional theorists are willing to admit. The goal of
the commons is not necessarily to exclude, but to preserve
the social and moral integrity of a given resource or social community.
Preservation may or may not require exclusion. In socially based
commons that use renewable resources—free software, community
gardens, scientific disciplines—greater value is created
as more people participate. Free riders are welcome so long as
no one privatizes the common wealth.
In a strict sense, New York City's
community gardens and Alcoholics Anonymous are not "owned" by
the American people as a whole. They are "owned" by their members.
But anyone can walk into an AA meeting, and anyone can use community
parks. The very openness and accessibility of these commons are
what makes them so valuable. Proprietary exclusion would reduce
their value. The Internet exemplifies this paradox. It is a highly
robust resource precisely because it has very weak property (copyright)
protections. This idea confounds conventional economists and property
Palmer accuses me of making a "breathtaking"
logical leap in believing that common property resources can be
managed successfully on a vast scale. It is true that larger commons
require more explicit, formal systems of rules and management
than smaller commons. But that does not mean that a commons cannot
function on a large scale. The Alaska Permanent Fund, Social Security,
and GNU/Linux are fine examples.
Two final notes about Palmer's
critique: I find it revealing that he dwells on theoretical abstractions
rather than directly confronting my real-life, contemporary examples.
Second, if externalities are an "overriding theme of the economics
of property," why do so many champions of the market resist systematic
efforts to force corporations to internalize the many costs that
they shift on to the environment, consumers, workers, communities,
and future generations?
Apart from the debate about the
nature of the commons itself, the respondents raise some interesting
secondary issues that I wish to clarify. There are indeed dangers
that "local commons" might be captured by local business elites
and compromised, as Margaret Kohn points out. For that reason—and
many others—federal regulation is often indispensable. But
regulation has its own well-known limitations in achieving community
objectives and is itself highly vulnerable to political manipulation,
as the Bush administration is making clear. I say, let's acknowledge
the risks of local commons, as Kohn urges, but not dismiss them
as the pipe dream of communitarians or pro-business federalists.
A rich literature documents the many circumstances in which local
stakeholders have sustainably managed natural resources as commons.
Margaret Kohn and Marcia Angell
point out that stakeholder trusts such as the Alaska Permanent
Fund and the Sky Trust are likely to encourage citizens to over-exploit
a natural resource, and not preserve it. This is a real danger,
to be sure. But there is also evidence that stakeholders trusts
may actually improve long-term environmental management
of a resource.
A study by Jon Souder and Sally
Fairfax found that state forest trusts, whose revenues are dedicated
to public education, provide more ecologically sensitive forest
management than either privately owned forests or the U.S. Forest
Service.1 They explain that a trust
managed for a broad-based constituency (in this case, the education
community) has a keen self-interest in maintaining its long-term
income stream and thus in preserving the asset. Furthermore, as
Peter Barnes explains in his book, stakeholders often have incentives
to place caps on the exploitation of a resource as a way to realize
a higher economic return—a strategy that supports sustainable
management of the resource.2
Beyond this issue, we should acknowledge
that, in the absence of stakeholder trusts, it is customary for
private industry to pocket the economic benefits of a public resource
for itself. Surely it is an advance to ensure that the public
reaps a fair economic return on its own resources.
Kohn raises some significant and
vexing questions about the blurring of public-private distinctions
in Business Improvement Districts and gated communities. These
issues certainly deserve greater scrutiny and attention. Yet if
we are intent upon reclaiming the commons, these complexities
should not divert us from immediately tackling the many egregious
and expensive enclosures of public assets now underway.
Imagining a new politics to combat
the "silent theft" of our common wealth was indeed beyond the
scope of my essay, as Robert McChesney notes. But his point deserves
to be underscored: We need to go beyond critiques and arguments,
and develop fresh political leadership, innovative advocacy vehicles,
and new opportunities for democratic participation. In that, I
salute the ongoing efforts of Richard Stallman, Jeff Chester,
Gary Larson, and the other respondents. <
David Bollier is author of Silent Theft: The Private
Plunder of Our Common Wealth and co-founder of Public Knowledge,
a public-interest advocacy group.
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by the Market? with David Bollier and respondents.
A. Souder and Sally K. Fairfax, "In Lands We Trusted: State Trust
Lands as an Alternative Theory of Public Land Ownership," in Charles
Geisler and Gail Daneker, eds., Property and Values: Alternatives
to Public and Private Ownership (Washington, D.C.: Island
2 Barnes, Who Owns the Sky?
in the Summer 2002 issue of Boston