Paradox Of The Commons

We have grown up with the 'Tragedy of The Commons' programmed in our brains. 

If something is common property, no one cares for it - we have taken it for granted. It is because the way incentive systems are believed to work. If something is everyone's property, no one in particular has the responsibility for its upkeep; and yet the person who gets there first and uses it to the maximum, gains most. So a common forest is overfell, common pond is overfished, common field is overgrazed. And, on the other hand, property rights really protect the productive capacities of the resources, and creates common good. How convenient!

This looks like common sense that can be so easily proved empirically. We know it from our instincts - from overeating at the buffet or binging at happy hours - that costs for using something makes us more responsible. And, we came to accept the conclusions that followed from this idea: That everyone is better off when the natural resources are privately owned, as the ownership would lead to care and care would lead to greater productivity. We even applied the idea retrospectively and rooted the British Industrial Revolution to the Eighteenth Century Enclosure movement, which allocated common land to private ownership, which drove up agricultural productivity, released men from small farming to toil in the new industrial centres, destroyed wool farming and created the grounds for Cotton trade and eventually created, as some claim, the whole infrastructure of a modern economy.

If the fable of the ancient communal society lies at the heart of all socialist imagination, the tragedy of the common lies at the heart of all capitalist imagery. The idea of private property - based on the Lockean notion of rights emanating from work that one may do on something commonly owned - is not only moral, but needed for the sake of common good. And, from this follows all the other ideas - that a socialist system is about inefficiency and abandoning of all human agency - about centrality of private property in our world.

However, two questions about the commons that should be asked. First, how true is it to assume that commons was an inefficient system that did not allow for progress and necessarily led to over-exploitation of resources? And, second, does this idea of private ownership create the right incentives for progress stand as an universal law, applicable everywhere, or these are just special cases more suitable for ponds and fields but not much in modern life?

The first question somewhat presents a problem if we are to see all human history as a narrative of progress. Some form of common property has existed all through history. From common forests and grazing fields to socialised health care and state schools, there are many examples where the common property has functioned, and functioned well. And, indeed, we have not caused a climatic disaster, not even at a local scale, by over exploiting our resources while we enjoyed them in common. That we have progressed to a higher form of society by introducing private property must allow for such progress being plausible through the existence of common property in the past, and that the common property has not gone away somewhat points to its sustainability. In fact, this story of progress can be told, with equal plausibility, in another way: That persistence of private property rights in the current times is a residue of the old Feudal power structures, which, now stripped of its sacral excuses, is sustained on the basis of justifications of efficiency.

The second question would extend this problem of viability of common ownership as we know that private property is not the best possible method of organising our affair in many important aspects of our lives. We have created an intellectual property system which has become anti-innovation rather than creating the right incentives for ideas, which is its stated purpose. We have now discovered, through diligent research, the ideas often spring from sharing and interaction, rather than being built through individual brilliance of a single inventor, the dominant myth of the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries. And, therefore, the contemporary policy-making has focused with renewed vigour on development and maintenance of intellectual commons, entrepreneurial ecosystems and the like.

For me, this presents the paradox of the commons. We want to build commons within a private property economy: All the cool management ideas of Open Innovation, Sharing Economy and the like borrows the idea of the commons and try to implement it within a private property context. These efforts underpin a basic contradiction: We believe that commons is inefficient, but look to build a commons when we look for innovation. With some success, I would say, we have built all those user networks like Facebook and even this blogging environment, where the platform is built on the efforts of millions of users - a modern sharecropping economy, as Nicholas Carr would call it! However, there is a limit how much people would do, and there is a moment, may be now, when people would question the wisdom of such schemes: They know sharing economy is about share-cropping and that Facebook should morally be owned by its users (using Locke's ideas) rather than its capitalists (who provided the metaphorical field).



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