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March 02, 2004

a caution about the "commons"

"Commons" are various types of resources that are either owned by no one (e.g., the oceans and the Internet), or owned jointly by some community. There are many advantages to commons. They can be free, diverse, communitarian, egalitarian, creative, and democratic. We can cite examples of commons that meet each of these criteria. But chances are, the various goods that we expect from commons will conflict in actual cases. For example, there are highly communitarian commons in which everyone knows everyone else; strong social pressures ensure that all contribute genuine goods to the common pool. These commons are communitarian, but not free or diverse. Then there are extremely libertarian commons, like the Internet, in which diversity, creativity, and freedom are rife, but many people free-ride or pollute the common pool with spam and viruses; and trust is low. There are commons that are democratic in the sense that everyone has an equal vote on policies the affect the whole, but if such votes are binding, then there may not be much individual liberty. I am not convinced that there are commons that meet all the desirable criteria at once.

These are familiar tensions that we see in the design of all institutions. I believe it is important to acknowledge them when we champion the commons, or else it will look like a panacea when it is not.

Posted by peterlevine at March 2, 2004 10:10 AM

Comments

Prof. Brett Frischmann of Loyola University Chicago (http://www.luc.edu/law/faculty/frischmann.shtml) is working on an economic theory of 'infrastructure commons' that attempts to acknowledge the tensions within commons while defining what systems can/are/should be managed as commons. There's an introduction of his ideas included in the event description of the talk he gave yesterday at Stanford:

http://cyberlaw.stanford.edu/events/archives/brett_m_frischmann.shtml

Posted by: Eli at March 9, 2004 02:51 PM

In addition to the Stanford talk, a working draft of the paper is available on the Social Science Research Network at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=588424

Posted by: Brett at October 28, 2004 03:35 PM

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