Oh dear, George doesn’t understand what a commons is

That it is necessary to explain the commons testifies to their neglect (despite the best efforts of political scientists such as the late Elinor Ostrom). A commons is neither state nor market. It has three main elements. First a resource, such as land, water, minerals, scientific research, hardware or software. Second a community of people who have shared and equal rights to this resource, and organise themselves to manage it. Third the rules, systems and negotiations they develop to sustain it and allocate the benefits.

A true commons is managed not for the accumulation of capital or profit, but for the steady production of prosperity or wellbeing. It belongs to a particular group, who might live in or beside it, or who created and sustain it. It is inalienable, which means that it should not be sold or given away. Where it is based on a living resource, such as a forest or a coral reef, the commoners have an interest in its long-term protection, rather than the short-term gain that could be made from its destruction.

No, just no.

A commons is a resource, entirely true. But it’s a resource with common access – thus the name. And Garrett Hardin told us a lot about these. When demand for the resource is below regenerative capacity then it can simply motor along as is. When demand rises above that then some form of management must be imposed. Hardin thought there were two, state (regulation that is) or private property. Ostrom added the third, the community of users themselves, spontaneous order that is. Which works, up to some number of people – a couple of thousand tops.

That is, everything after the sentence stating that a commons is a resource, everything is about how people manage that access to the common resource, that’s not part of the definition of what the resource is, nor a commons. It’s in fact a definition of those commons which have survived, because people have worked out a method of limiting access.

George is entirely missing the point that is. And in doing so he’s also entirely missing the vast amount of work that’s been done on this sort of thing. Coase for example, illuminates which of the three methods we might use in certain circumstances. Hardin himself was insistent that which of his two methods depended on circumstances, nothing else. We might, as we actually do at times, be able to deal with water rights through private contracts. Atmospheric pollution less so and regulation is more likely as a solution. Or at least government action. How many cows the 30 farmers of the village can put upon Minchinhampton Common might well be left to the saloon bar of the Dog and Duck. Or the Manorial Court which is much the same thing as Ostrom’s communal regulation.

By not grasping the underlying economic point Monbiot is thus able to ramble off into wibble, sadly.

14 thoughts on “Oh dear, George doesn’t understand what a commons is”

  1. Oddly it’s Monbiot that first ‘introduced’ me to the delights of The Daily Spud.

    Monbiot had written some nonsense about a new bit of tax legislation, trying to make out as always that it was ‘unfair’ and allowed big business to dodge tax (all it did was align overseas branch taxation rules with existing overseas subsidiary tax rules).

    Monbiot’s crap appeared on the TRUK website so I dropped a note to Spud pointing out that Monbiot had misunderstood the legislation.

    Back came the (now anticipated) nonsense about how I didn’t understand. I explained I did and referred to the actual legislation. Spud retaliated by saying only big business could take advantage of the rules. I mentioned a sub-£2m turnover business I acted for in a situation designed for this legislation and preparing to use it, he accused me of being pedantic and that further discussion was pointless.

    The rest, as they say, is a history of pseudonyms.

  2. Ironically the real tragedy here is the Left’s endless supply of ignorant pontificating twats such as Monbiot.

  3. “But it’s a resource with common access – thus the name. ”

    No, just no.
    It *was* a resource available to a group of people known as ‘commoners’. And only them. Those Rights in Common were granted by the owner of the resource(s) such as the Lord of the Manor. He presided over disputes between the commoners at a Court of Commons Law.

  4. We’re not talking about the historical idea of a village commons. We’re talking about the economic idea of “a commons.”

  5. I have a great deal of sympathy for the idea and the ideal. But the problem with the Commons is when time and change and rapid events overtake the original set up. Has he never heard of The Tragedy Of The Commons and their propensity to break down under stress?

  6. So an example of the commons is the magic mushrooms we used to pick on the village cricket field.

    The tragedy of the commons being the mess my parents found the morning after my friends and I ingested them.

  7. Odd that you should mention Minchinhampton Common: I was walking there only a few months ago, for my father has moved into that village.

    Incidentally, there used to be seven pubs in Minchinhampton: now there are none. The only drinking establishment is the Cotswold Working Men’s Club—currently embroiled in something of a brou-ha-ha over whether to allow female members…


  8. How many cows the 30 farmers of the village can put upon Minchinhampton Common might well be left to the saloon bar of the Dog and Duck.

    More likely the Old Lodge now the Half-way House is no longer a pub.

  9. Bloke in North Dorset

    Here you go again, Tim. You’re talking about a Commons with a precise definition and they’re talking about a commons, which can mean whatever they want it to mean.

    Agreed definitions are for neoliberals.

  10. It’s The Tragedy Of The *Unmanaged* Commons, and it’s the *unmanaged* but that’s the important part.

    A realistic example is the brambles in my local recreation grounds. They are “managed” by people only taking as many blackberries as they can carry, and anybody can go along brambling and everybody gets free blackberries. But if somebody decides to go along with a van and fill it up then that one person benefits to the disbenefit of everybody else.

  11. One rule on some of the old Commons was about collecting wood. No carts or wagons were allowed: you could take what you could carry. And “you” had to be a Commoner, of course.

  12. And you could only take fallen branches or wood from small trees and bushes – no cutting down oak trees for firewood – and then only sufficient for your own needs (no selling on). The right was called ‘estovers’ (Norman French) and some commoners still possess it.

  13. Most of the cows on Minchinhampton common belong to Princess Anne. I don’t see her bending to the will of The Ragged Cot.

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