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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 markets.

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 work here.

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 theorists.

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.

Click here to return to the new deomocracy forum, Ruled by the Market? with David Bollier and respondents.

Notes

1 Jon 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 Press, 2000).

2 Barnes, Who Owns the Sky?

Originally published in the Summer 2002 issue of Boston Review

 



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