Thursday, June 30, 2005

Principles of the Commons

Garrett Hardin’s 1968 essay, The Tragedy of the Commons, led many people to think that all commons are self-destructive. But Hardin’s essay was misleading.

Hardin assumed there’s only one kind of commons, the unfenced pasture or waste dump with no management system. In such a situation, overuse can lead to destruction.

What Hardin overlooked is that there are many kinds of commons and many ways to run them. For example, you can have a fenced commons with a gate-keeper, or fishing limits with licenses, or a cultural commons with infinite possibilities. There’s no tragedy inherent in these and many other commons. (See Working Models for a sampling of successful American commons.)

Still, the proper way to manage a commons isn’t always obvious. So let’s explore some basic principles, beginning with a look at standard business management.

There are two sets of rules for managing private assets. One applies to corporations, the other to trusts such as pension funds, charitable foundations and family estates.

The goal of corporate rules is to maximize short-term return to capital. The goal of trust rules is to preserve assets for the long term and assure that beneficiaries receive their due. It’s these latter rules that merit attention here.

Over centuries, several principles of trust management have evolved. These include:
  • Managers have a fiduciary responsibility to beneficiaries. If a manager fails this obligation, s/he can be removed and penalized.
  • Managers must preserve the principal. It’s okay to spend income, but don’t invade the corpus.
  • Managers must assure transparency. Information about money flows should be readily available to beneficiaries.

As with private trusts, the goal of commons management is to preserve assets and share benefits. Hence, the basic principles of commons management are similar to those of private trusts.

Commons managers must, first and foremost, protect shared assets for the long term. They must also assure that the benefits flowing from the assets are widely shared.

Beyond these basic principles, specific rules for commons management vary from one commons to another. Broadly speaking, they depend on the level of use society wishes to allow or encourage.

If a commons needs to be off limits to all but the most non-invasive use — a wilderness area, for example — the guiding rule is, ‘No trespassing.’

If a commons has no inherent limits on use — like the Internet or the cultural commons — the guiding rule is, ‘The more the merrier.’ Use should be as free as possible, and management’s main job should be to minimize private toll booths.

If a commons can be used up to, but not beyond, some physical threshold — fisheries, aquifers and the atmosphere are examples — management’s job is to set and enforce sustainable use limits. In economic terms, its challenge is to live off income without diminishing capital.

In managing physically limited commons, it’s often desirable to cap total use and charge users a fee. Such caps and prices assure preservation, let markets sort out competing uses, and generate revenue for social and environmental needs.

Setting a total usage cap can be controversial. If the physical threshold is uncertain, a critical question is, "Which side should we err on?" Under the precautionary principle, if the potential harm from overuse is substantial (e.g. the polar ice caps could melt), the cap should be set with safety as the guide.

The process of protecting and sustaining a commons involves several steps. The asset must first be identified and given a legal and/or institutional structure. In some cases, usage caps and new kinds of property rights may be necessary. It may also be necessary to appoint trustees and acquire pre-existing property rights.

Once a commons is protected and given a proper management regime, markets can come into play.

Source: Friends of the Commons


In England and Wales, a common is a piece of land over which other people -- often neighbouring landowners -- could exercise one of a number of traditional rights, such as allowing their cattle to graze upon it. The older texts use the word common to denote any such right, but more modern usage is to refer to particular rights of common, and to reserve the word "common" for the land over which the rights are exercised.

The fact that land is common land does not mean it has no owner -- all land in England and Wales is owned by someone. Those who have a right to exercise a right of common are known as 'commoners. Historically most rights of common were "appurtenant" to particular plots of land. So the commoner would be the person who, for the time being, was the owner of the land. Some rights of common were said to be "in gross" in that they were unconnected with ownership or tenure of land. This was more common in regions where commons were more extensive, such as in Northern England or in the Fens.

Example rights of common are:

common pasture (right to pasture cattle, horses, sheep or other animals on the

common land)common piscary (the right to fish

common turbary (the right to take sods of turf)

estovers (the right to take sufficient wood for the commoner's house or agriculture)

Rights of common grazing might also be held over privately owned arable strips in some open field manors; this right was excercised either after the harvest or during a fallow year. Rights of grazing in the open fields was most valuable in manors with relatively little other grazing.

It is often thought that a common is somehow owned by everyone, or at least by "the community" in some sense. While that may have been true more than a thousand years ago, when waste would be used for grazing by the local community and over which there would not be, nor would there need to be, any particular limit or control of usage; since at least late Anglo-Saxon times, the right to exercise a right of common has been restricted to a commoner. Since the right of common would have some natural limitations itself, commons never suffered from the tragedy of the commons.

Thus the word is now used in the sense of any sets of resources that a community recognizes as being accessible to any member of that community. The nature of commons is different in different communities, but they often include cultural resources and natural resources.

While commons are generally seen as a system opposed to private property, they have been combined in the idea of "common property", which are resources "owned" equally by every member of the community, even though the community recognises that only a limited number of members may use the resource at any given time.

The act of transferring resources from the commons to individual ownership is known as "inclosure."

Commons are a subset of public goods; specifically meaning a public good which is not infinite. Commons can therefore be land, rivers and, arguably, money. "The Commons" is most often a finite but replenishable resource, which requires responsible use in order to remain available. A subset of this is a commons which requires not only responsible use but also active contribution from its users, such as a school or church funded by local donations.

In order to ensure responsibility of the users, there must be a system of management. Such models include the Hobbesian "Leviathan" model, where there is a central authority that monitors the behaviour of the users and can sanction abusers. There are also many other models, some of which can require no maintenance -- for instance, if it is known that the collective consists mostly of contingent cooperators, then once responsible behaviour has been established, it will most likely continue without management. Another model is reputation management.

"Commons", Wikipedia,