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Thursday, August 28, 2003

This essay, Reclaiming the Commons by David Bollier published in the New Democracy Forum of the Boston Review voices the views most directly refuted by Berry.

One of the great questions of contemporary American political economy is, who shall control the commons? "The commons" refers to that vast range of resources that the American people collectively own, but which are rapidly being enclosed: privatized, traded in the market, and abused. The process of converting the American commons into market resources can accurately be described as enclosure because, like the movement to enclose common lands in eighteenth-century England, it involves the private appropriation of collectively owned resources.

The commons and enclosure are archaic, unfamiliar terms. But this strangeness is appropriate. We currently lack a vocabulary for identifying a wide range of abuses that harm public assets and social ecology.

What Bollier reveals is a complete lack of scholarship about the historical events and institutions he cites as well as complete misunderstanding of America. In Berry's words:

Historically, the commons belonged to the local community, not to "the public." The possibility of a commons, in the true sense, depends on local adaptation, a process in which Americans have, at times and in places, made a few credible beginnings, always frustrated by the still-dominant belief that local adaptation does not matter because localities do not matter. At present it is generally true that we do not know in any useful sense where we are, much less how to act on the basis of such knowledge. If we humans know where we are and how to live well and conservingly there, then we can have and use the place "in common." Otherwise - and it is still far otherwise with us - we must find appropriate ways to parcel out, and so limit, both privilege and responsibility.

Bollier's points regarding tangible assets such as land are undermined by his confused use of the concept of a commons and end up being little more than advocacy for state control. But as Berry has so eloquently pointed out this is a recipe for destruction of assets because they are treated as assets rather than someone's home and life.

Bollier continues to spin in confusion by claiming that intangible assets such as knowledge are a sort of commons, by which he mistakenly means owned by the public rather than a community intimately aware of how to live well and honor the requirements of that commons. It has been said that knowledge is power and in a sense it always has been. In the past before the concept of enforceable intellectual property rights existed knowledge was hoarded and concealed, only revealed to initiates in guilds and societies since that was the source of their livelihood and power. The system of lawful uses of knowledge and intellectual products opened up the secret societies so that knowledge could be expanded by building on those foundations. Trade secrets are still kept but not to the extent they once were and usually not to useful effect. The secret recipe for Kentucky Fried Chicken's 11 herbs and spices is a marketing claim not a concealment of knowledge.

In a final confusion Bollier attempts to redefine community creations, such as Linux, as a commons in the sense he means of public ownership. That isn't how it works.

Bollier's failed metaphors have collapsed at this point in his essay but he doesn't notice and claims:

In an age of market triumphalism and economic myopia, it is an open question whether the notion of "commonwealth"—that we are a people with shared history, common values, and control over collectively owned assets—has practical meaning. As private interests have quietly seized the American commons, we have lost sight of our heritage as a democratic commonwealth. A society in which every human transaction is increasingly mediated by the market, in which everything is privately owned and controlled, may come to resemble a network of medieval fiefdoms, in which every minor property-holder demands tribute for the right to cross his land or ford his streams. This balkanization is bound to impede the flow of commerce and ideas—and the sustainability of innovation and democratic culture. 2 Furthermore, such extreme market dominance tends to undermine the civic trust and shared commitments required by any functioning society.

He commits the post modern sin of analytic collapse by equating markets with feudalism though they have nothing in common. More importantly, he has it quite backwards. It is bureaucracy that creates transaction friction between political boundaries. Market players do everything they can to reduce transaction friction and so increase trade. They have strong incentives to do so since transaction costs simply make some markets untenable. When the cost of metering and billing for goods and services exceeds their value then there is no market.

Markets fail when there are no ways to measure and value the resources used in producing a product or service. As Berry makes plain agriculture, silvaculture, fisheries and other forms of natural resource extraction have this problem because we currently have no ways to measure environmental change or assign values so that the products can include those costs in their prices. Subsidies, tariffs, quotas and other forms of regulation can help with these problems so long as we understand what we are doing and why we are doing it. Where there is a true commons - where there is a community of practice where all are engaged in shared use of resources, understand the issues involved with common use, and are accountable to one another for fair use - then market regulation is not required.

The tragic consequences for large numbers of humans that resulted from failure to understand human behavior, societies and other complex natural systems in the past century need to be fully understood. Statism and collectivism in the failed idea that this somehow represents public ownership of assets and that this mythical public can somehow do a competent job of managing those assets has caused the impoverishment of societies and the destruction of environments on a grand scale. A useful mental tool for resisting the temptations of this simplistic and ineffective approach to social organization is to understand what a commons really is and how it differs from state/public ownership.

posted by back40 | 8/28/2003 07:14:00 PM


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