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January 5, 2005

associational commons

In a response to yesterday’s post, Mike Weiksner asks me to explain why I am enthusiastic about voluntary associations that create goods—one of the eight forms of “commons” that I had identified. I’m in favor of creating things, because creativity is a valuable and dignified aspect of human life. Although preservation is important, we also need to put our own stamp on the world. But why should we create goods as members of associations? Here is a detailed answer, partly auto-plagiarized from an article of mine that’s in the Digital Library of the Commons.

Let me say, first of all, that associations are not always good. Just because a group is a nonprofit does not guarantee that it is fair, responsible, transparent, or honorable. Nevertheless, there is a great tradition of banding together into voluntary groups to make goods. This is what Alexis de Tocqueville found exemplary in the New World. He is often seen as a theorist of free association, but he especially admired groups that generated goods: “The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to diffuse books, to build inns, to construct churches, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools.” I believe that such associational commons are the heart of “civil society” and explain a considerable part of its appeal.

Furthermore, associational commons, while hardly infallible, have several advantages over other forms:

1. Voluntary associations offer freedom of exit. In contrast, you have to emigrate to escape majority rule in a democracy; and tight communities of birth may keep their members from leaving by imposing serious psychological (and even financial) barriers to exit. Most voluntary associations also allow “voice,” because if they don’t listen to their members, then everyone will quit. (These concepts of “voice” and “exit” come from Albert Hirschman’s great book, Exit Voice and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States) Related to freedom of exit is pluralism: there are many groups, and we have choice about which to join.

2. An association can defend itself; it can litigate and lobby to protect the public good of which it is the steward. In time-honored fashion, associations give their members “selective incentives” (such as free access to the good that they control) in return for support. Thus, for example, a religious congregation may own a beautiful building that creates “positive externalities” for the broader community: nice views, free concerts, tourist revenues. The congregation may allow anyone who commits to its creed and pays tithes to join. Members then gain special access to the building (for instance, reserved pews and invitations to social events). In return, the congregation gains a bank balance with which it can hire masons if the building is damaged, and lawyers if there is a legal threat. In contrast, a libertarian commons such as the ocean suffers from a classic free-rider problem. Some people and groups benefit from degrading the commons, either by taking too much of it for themselves, fencing parts off as private property, or polluting it. Many people like the commons and wish to see it defended. But no one has a sufficient incentive to pay to defend a good that benefits everyone else as well.

3. Even though an association is not a state, it can be democratic. It can offer its members opportunities to deliberate about policy and to make collective decisions with fair procedures. In contrast, a libertarian commons is difficult to regulate even if the vast majority of participants feel (and feel rightly) that particular rules should be imposed. Not all associations are democratic, but they allow at least the opportunity to "vote with your feet" by quitting.

4. An association can publicly articulate a comprehensive set of values. A libertarian commons is free, but liberty may be the only moral norm that it embodies. In contrast, a university, a religious congregation, or a professional association can declare itself the defender of a basket of values, including freedom, public access, truth, sustainability, reliability, and/or decency. In some cases, a government may monitor the association to ensure that it serves its mission.

5. An association can proselytize, in the best sense of the term. Any commons relies on a demanding set of norms and commitments, such as trust, reciprocity, long time-horizons, optimism about the possibilities of voluntary collective action, and personal commitment.

People have a civic identity if they have internalized these norms in relation to a particular public good. Put another way, we are “civic” if we see ourselves as responsible for the good, and if we act accordingly. A civic identity is unlikely to develop automatically. We have to be taught to be civic; we aren’t born that way. Each generation must transmit to the next a moral concern for common goods. Young people must also be given particular skills, techniques, and “operational principles” to manage shared goods. As Lin Ostrom argues, “At any time that individuals may gain from the costly action of others, without themselves contributing time and effort, they face collective action dilemmas for which there are coping methods. When de Tocqueville discussed the ‘art and science of association,’ he was referring to the crafts learned by those who had solved ways of engaging in collective action to achieve a joint benefit. Some aspects of the science of association are both counterintuitive and counterintentional, and thus must be taught to each generation as part of the culture of a democratic citizenry.” [Ostrom, “The Need for Civic Education: A Collective Action Perspective” (1998), p. 1.]

Knowing this, successful associations recruit members with an eye to the future, looking (for example) for young people who can replace their current membership and leadership in decades to come. Associations educate their recruits—and also the general public—about collective action in pursuit of their core values. If they have narrow constituencies, they may try to broaden their appeal. If they have broad but shallow support, they may try to develop a zealous core.

Around 2000, I became interested in creating an association to manage a whole new top-level domain, the "dot-civ" realm, for which it would write rules and enforce norms. (See this pdf.) I'm not sure that this was a great idea, but it stands for the more general concept that associations can manage portions of the Internet. For example, it's a great idea to have an organized, very large-scale group blog for a geographical community, like the Bakersfield (CA) Northwest Voice. But many value-judgments have to be made in creating such a news source. I would like to see a voluntary association--rather than a company--in charge.

January 5, 2005 12:06 PM | category: Internet and public issues | Comments


Now, if only I could results like that from elected officials!

If I hear you correctly, you are enthusiastic because of the *potential* of voluntary groups to make public goods. I agree wholeheartedly with your reply.

Where I am still concerned is the feasibility of such work. Getting voluntary groups to do something is like herding cats - I speak from experience.

And in the real world, associations are competing against each other for scarce resources. In this real world, advocacy groups and other less democratic forms consistently seem to beat voluntary groups for these resources.

So for this reason, I've become less enthusiastic than I was five years ago about realizing the potential of voluntary associations to make public goods.

Perhaps what I'd like to see is a study of such public goods made by voluntary associations that seeks to understand when it works and why, and what are the obstacles when they fail.

Now, if you can reply as thoroughly to this post as my last I will truly be impressed. ;)

January 6, 2005 10:33 AM | Comments (2) | posted by Michael Weiksner


I won't be as thorough, if only because I'm sitting on the floor by a bank of phones in National Airport! Besides, I don't have answers to your good questions, which also concern me deeply. However, I would point you and anyone else to the resources collected by and through the International Association for the Study of Common Property (IASCP) (http://www.indiana.edu/~iascp/) and the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis (http://www.indiana.edu/~workshop/). These are Lin Ostrom's groups at Indiana, and they directly address your questions.

January 6, 2005 10:50 AM | Comments (2) | posted by Peter Levine

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