The Commons

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David Bollier

One of the biggest problems in contemporary life is the unchecked growth of market values as a way to govern resources and ourselves. This is resulting in the privatization and commodification — or "enclosure" — of the commons. Resources that morally or legally belong to everyone are increasingly coming under the control of markets.

Not only does enclosure result in higher prices and the need to ask for permission to use something previously available to all, it shifts ownership and control to private companies. The market efficiencies that businesses seek can be illusory, however, because they often depend upon unacknowledged subsidies from the commons (for example, discount access to public resources) and the displacement of costs onto the commons (pollution, social disruption, harm to future generations). Enclosure does not add value in the aggregate; it merely privatizes value at the expense of the common wealth.


"The commons" is a useful term for contemporary political discourse because it provides a new lexicon for re-situating market activity in a social and political context. It helps us identify resources that should not be alienated for market use, but should remain non-propertized and "owned" (in a civic or democratic sense) by everyone. Our culture has no serious vocabulary for contextualizing "the free market" in a social framework; it assumes that it is a universal, ahistorical force of nature. The commons helps rectify this conceptual problem by offering a rich, countervailing template to the market paradigm, one that can speak about the economic and legal aspects of a commons as intelligibly as its social and personal aspects.


The commons insists that certain things should not be alienated — that is, sold and converted into money. Thus, it is inappropriate to express the value of a worker's life or an endangered species as a dollar sum, in a cost-benefit analysis. It may be morally repugnant to sell off the "naming rights" of public institutions much as it is considered unacceptable to allow people to sell their bodies, babies, ova or genes.

The commons gives us a language for talking about extra-market values and their importance. The commons, for example, allows us to talk about the human necessities of life — food, water, fuel, medicine — that may otherwise be seen as market commodities alone. The commons allows us to talk about the need for open, non-propertized spaces available to all; if too much of that space — for example, scientific knowledge, musical works, cultural symbols — is "locked up" through copyrights, patents or contracts, it can greatly impede future creativity and progress. We are already seeing the effects of such enclosure in medical research as a result of overly broad patents on "upstream" research.

By contrast, when information and creativity are non-propertized and non-monetized — as we see most frequently on the Internet — the resulting collaborations and exchanges generate a huge surplus value that can be enjoyed by everyone, and not be privatized. This is one reason there is such an epic struggle underway on the Internet — non-market modes of creativity and production are frequently more efficient in a strict economic sense, compared to conventional "real world" markets. There is a cornucopia of the commons, not a tragedy, as economists otherwise claim.

Despite the different ways in which commons and market create value, the two do not necessarily operate in separate and distinct spheres, but are interdependent. The point is to strike an appropriate balance between the two so that the value-creating capacities of each can be optimized.

There are a wide variety of effective commons-management models that belie the “tragedy of the commons” metaphor invoked by Garrett Hardin in his famous 1968 essay. While Hardin was talking about an “open access” regime in which no one owns or manages a shared resource, an actual commons has specific rules and social norms for preventing over-use, excluding outsiders, and managing the resource in long-term, sustainable ways.

Increasingly, the Internet is the host for countless self-organized commons such as free and open source software, social networking communities, Wikipedia, Craigslist, and websites for sharing photos, videos and other creative works. One useful tool in creating these commons are Creative Commons licenses, which enable ordinary people to freely share their creative works while retaining copyrights for commercial purposes.

The public library and the land trust are familiar, highly effective types of commons. More people are starting to realize that public spaces like parks, community gardens, farmers’ markets and festivals are also important to the economic and social health of a community. There is a dawning awareness that commons-based infrastructure like wireless Internet access is a great way to use a public resource, the airwaves, to help people connect with each other.

There are many other types of legal and institutional solutions for managing the commons, although most are not mentally grouped with other legal or institutional models as commons solutions. It is time for more people to see the kinship of these solutions and their holistic advantages over so-called free market.


Using "the commons" as a new discourse helps us re-frame the terms of discussion for many issues and declare our personal stake in protecting shared public resources. It helps draw new linkages among disparate market enclosures, and in this sense, helps fragmented public-interest constituencies develop a new, shared language. At the same time the discourse of the commons validates a number of specific governance models -- civic institutions, stakeholder trusts, legal mechanisms, social customs and norms -- that can help us protect and manage our common assets effectively.

The emerging commons sector won’t replace corporations or markets, but it will complement and temper them. In so doing, it will provide benefits corporations can’t supply: healthy ecosystems, economic security, stronger communities and a participatory culture. And it will curb the corporate invasion of realms that we hold dear – nature, our minds, our food and our democracy.

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