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January 4, 2005

a commons taxonomy

A commons (or, as the Brits say, "a common") is a shared resource. Some common resources are made by the group that shares them; others are found in nature.* Meanwhile, resources can be shared in a variety of ways. In a libertarian commons, no one owns the assets at all; since there are no property rights, everyone shares. In a communitarian commons, a tight group of people owns a resource jointly. Membership may come as a birthright, as in peasant villages. Members can't sell or trade their rights. Some such communities are very stable and efficient because there are thick bonds of trust and obligation within the group. In a voluntary/associational commons, membership is a matter of choice. One can join and quit at will (although joining may be subject to the group's approval). Whether it's an informal network or a registered 501(c)3, the association jointly owns certain assets. But associations differ from corporations in that ownership is not divisible, proportional to investment, or purchasable. If you quit the association, you simply renounce your stake. Finally, in a democratic commons, the government owns and manages assets and holds them in public trust. Combining the "made"/"found" distinction with the type of governance yields the following taxonomy:

  "found" "made"
libertarian the oceans, the ozone layer; works of art from the past that are now in the public domain the Internet; open-source software; science, when it reflects R.K. Merton's CUDOS norms
communitarian coastal fishing villages and other communities that subsist on natural resources; very conservative religious communities rural communities that create and share common pool resources, such as Alpine meadows and water districts; public spaces that belong to tight communities rather than democratic states
voluntary/associational preservationist organizations that are stewards of some natural or cultural heritage clubs, religious congregations, political parties
democratic oil reserves, national forests public spaces such as squares and museums; laws, legislative bodies


All of these forms have advantages and disadvantages. However, I am especially enthusiastic about voluntary/associational commons that make goods. They are the heart of Tocquevillian civil society, in my view. Communitarian commons are too restrictive--and libertarian commons, too fragile--for my taste. In a lot of my scholarly and practical work, I'm trying to give the libertarian commons known as the Internet more of an associational feel.

*The "made"/"found" distinction is really a matter of degree and can certainly be debated in particular cases. Simon Schama, in Landscape and Memory, argues that almost all "natural" landscapes have actually been deeply influenced by people.

January 4, 2005 9:04 AM | category: Internet and public issues | Comments


Interesting framework. Can you explain a little bit more about why your are optmistic about the "made" voluntary/assoc. commons on the Internet?

I agree based on my gut feelings, but I'd love to have a little more analytical ammo to support it.

January 4, 2005 11:07 AM | Comments (2) | posted by Michael Weiksner

Not just Schama (favorite book) but most conservationists/environmental restoration people who find it difficult to set a point in time when the land was at its "most natural."

As for the "made" parts of "democratic" which depend so heavily on the public trust, it's interesting that the trust has been threatened lately. Whether this is a natural process or one which has been deliberately stirred up by the fans of corporatism and the ownership society, I don't know.

January 4, 2005 11:49 PM | Comments (2) | posted by PW

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