Past and the Future of the Commons - Notes 2

Published late on 714


  • Enclosure
  • Public Goods

    both from Wikipedia

  • Discussion - does a historical perspective add anything to our

    definitions of the commons, how about the possible ways of managing

    the commons. On enclosure - note the changing dynamics of the

    economy in England - the shift toward sheep farming; the importance

    of historical particularity - it’s clear that many different forms of

    enclosure were pursued and many forms of commons governance as well.

  • Public goods - key concepts - non-rival, non-excludable; the idea of

    inalienability - some things should not be sold, children, organs; 4

    part matrix of rivalry and excludability; common pool resources are

    rivalrous but non-excludable, thus leading to the ‘tragedy of the

    commons’ because people can access the goods easily and benefit from

    being a free-rider.

    Class discussion

How does the historical enclosure movement relate to current issues?

  1. It shows that the problem of the commons has been around for a long time and that various solutions have been tried in the past.
  2. Two central actors threatened the commons in the past: private landowners and the government. At various times their interests have overlapped and diverged. When acting in concert they can have a profound effect on the economic and social structures of the commons. In the case of the enclosure movement, they worked together to transform Britain from a medieval, agrarian culture to a mercantile/industrializing nation.

Both of these actors continue to play a large role in modern commons. States and governments have often been called upon to protect common resources, especially the environment. Private corporations continue to enclose the commons for their benefit. Some examples from intellectual property law are: copyright extensions, patent extension and litigation, etc.

How are the distinctions between rivalrous and non-rivalrous / excludable and non-excludable goods worked out in practice?

Case study: food policy and markets. Wikipedia treats food as a private good. Could there be a situation where food is a public or commons based good? Our default position in modern society is to analyze goods through the lens of markets. For food to be a public or commons good society would have to be structured very differently than it is now. Perhaps food was a common good in hunter-gatherer societies in the past. It may also have been treated as a gift by other cultures. But the transition to sedentary agriculture probably ended any food commons that might have existed in the past. The crucial factor may be the transition between abundance and scarcity. In a world of abundance it is easy to treat a good as held in common, but when scarcity arises then people are likely to start hoarding and or attempting to privatize the good themselves. An example of this comes from a case study in “Making the Commons Work.”