Some thoughts on the proposal to adopt the ‘Commons’ as the dominant economic paradigm

The following considerations are triggered by the following occurrences: A lengthy discussion took place on LinkedIn, (with more than 7700 comments over nearly two years) responding to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’ address at the 2011 World Economic Forum in Davos, calling for ‘revolutionary thinking and action to ensure an economic model for survival’. In spite of several efforts to develop a summary of the many interesting and creative ideas that were discussed, let alone a decisive recommendation statement  that could be sent to the UN or other agencies, the discussion appear to have ended without any such result. However, key participants in that discussion decided – as a result of the insights or in recognition of the inadequacy of the outcome? – to develop a document endorsing the idea and adoption of the Commons as a guiding paradigm to replace the current economic system. The questions listed in the following are based on issues that have been raised during that huge LinkedIn discussion, but are not, to my mind, adequately reflected in the material promoting adoption of the Commons and inviting others to join this movement, in the hope that they can be clarified to better support a decision to endorse or not endorse the proposal to adopt the Commons concept.

The concept of the commons is appealing; especially so in view of the apparent crisis of currently predominant economic paradigms. The fact of traditional commons having yielded to the current paradigm – a process known as ‘the tragedy of the commons’ – suggests careful analysis of the concept, the circumstances in which it is successful and enduring, and the circumstances leading to the ‘tragedy’:  if it is to be adopted as a replacement of the current economic system, what are the reasons allowing us to assume that the tragedy will not be repeated?

The material I have been studying appear to be emphasizing the desirability of returning to a commons-based system for the global economy – often to the point of sounding a little like wishful thinking – and neglecting due examination of critical issues, even very trivial and practical ones that could help readers who are still unaware or unconvinced to endorse the concept.

I don’t know if the questions that bother me have been answered in material I have not yet read; but I suggest that any answers to these questions should be included in the material advocating adoption of the commons as an alternative to the current predominant system, such as the material I have seen. To entice proponents to address and articulate these questions, it may be useful to adopt the role of ‘devil’s advocate’: raising some critical issues that might constitute arguments against adoption of the commons, in the hope that they will be answered not only to my satisfaction but to the level of effectiveness that can cause people who are now beneficiaries of the current system (more than I am) and therefore likely to oppose adoption, to change their position. It is in this spirit that I try to articulate some possible questions and objections, not even trying to cover such objections exhaustively. While I may have some ideas that might possibly be helpful in this regard, they are likely to be controversial in their own right, and injecting these into the discussion is still premature as well as distracting from the principle that proponents of the concept are still carrying the ‘burden of proof’ of its viability.

1      A first question: what are the conditions – both features of commons, and conditions ‘outside’ those commons – that led to the ‘tragedy of the commons’?  And what is the evidence that those conditions either do not exist now, or that they will be able to be overcome, and how?


2      Can the rise of earlier commons arrangements be described (in part) as arising from the fact that resources, or the domains in which resources were located, were too large, and thus inconvenient or impossible to be claimed as private property (e.g. large forests in which people were hunting, or mountain areas for summertime grazing by domesticated livestock), so that those forests or mountain areas were initially not ‘owned’ and only in time became claimed as ‘common’ property of a defined community when the respective resources became scarce enough to necessitate some rules for their exploitation? (Subsequently turning into ‘private property’?)  If so, is that condition or sequence comparable to the current situation where the main critical resources for survival are privately owned? What implications does this difference have for the task of returning the resources to ‘common’ ownership?


3      Most critical resources supporting human life today are in private property hands. The question has been raised how those can be returned to ‘common’ ownership – commons — because of concerns regarding the status of private property: In many countries, it is constitutionally protected and regarded as a cornerstone of a free society and economy, and attempts to change this must be expected to encounter significant opposition. Claims have been made to the effect that there is no intent to change this. If so, this would leave some of the most critical resources in private property hands, and the movement for the Commons would focus on resources that are not yet ‘owned’. If the underlying factors of the current crisis are related to the fact of private ownership of crucial resources, how would these problems be solved or mitigated by adoption of the Commons as the guiding paradigm for the remaining resources?


4      The representation and recommendation of adopting the Commons as a ‘guiding paradigm’ appears to contradict the assurance that no (involuntary) conversion of privately owned resources is intended. The contradiction would disappear if


a)     the assurance of no intent to change private property into Commons is retracted, (that is, those resources must ultimately be converted, (presumably against the resistance of the owners) or

b)     the significance of resources currently in private hands is reduced, e.g. by other resources assuming their critical role for the survival of humanity; or

c)     the adoption of the Commons even for currently non-vital resources will change the attitude of the owners of critical resources to voluntarily agree to conversion.

I don’t see these questions clearly answered (in the material I have seen); they should be clarified both to make it easier for people to decide whether they want to endorse the Commons movement, and to counter potentially embarrassing questions – for example the following:


5      If the crisis cannot be solved with critical resources in private property, but (only) by adoption of the Commons as ‘guiding’ (i.e. predominant) paradigm, the assurance that critical resource now in private property will not have to be converted is not believable. This would expose Commons promoters to the suspicion of deceptively pursuing conversion: ‘starting with non-essential domains, but tomorrow the world…’  The etymological closeness of “Commons’ and ‘Communism’ raises the specter of unjustified (or ‘justified?) vicious attacks by opponents, describing supporters as crypto-communists deviously aiming at taking over…

6      Alternatively, if the assurance ‘no conversion of private resources) is believable, the campaign for the Commons will be restricted to non-essential resources. This will not really change the causes of the crisis (unless other remedies unrelated to the Commons are taken) — and can be seen as inadvertently or deliberately (deviously) carrying the water for the owners of those critical resources – is the Commons movement a distraction, a diversion from the real problems?


7      Assuming absence of such devious intentions, the possibility must be accepted that there will be opponents of conversion, or of the various rules that must be agreed upon and installed for each Commons resource – even if widespread voluntary adoption of the Commons paradigm can be achieved. This means that there will have to be arrangements to ensure that rules and agreements will be adhered to: a function usually seen as the government’s (state) responsibility, and usually labeled ‘enforcement’ because to overcome resistance and opposition, the ‘enforcer’ must have greater power and force than any would-be violator. It is well known that such power is addictive and can be corrupted; such corruption is widely seen as one of the causes or contributing factors of the crisis. What are the provisions in the Commons concept that might remedy, replace or effectively counteract the detrimental aspects of such enforcement power? Failing satisfactory assurances regarding this question, could the Commons movement be denigrated as a deliberate or inadvertent scheme to increase and secure the power of the State…?


8      If satisfactory arrangements can be found to reduce or eliminate the danger of corruption and abuse of power — of governments as well as private enterprise entities – would those arrangements necessarily be tied to a Commons system? If not, what would be the difference whether such arrangements are applied to a Commons – type economy, or any other economic system?


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