Libertarians and the Commons are Friends

It is no secret that libertarians profess freedom, rule of law, and property rights. Unfortunately, the latter tends to be an immediate reaction to the commons. As the story goes – disputes over shared property are solved by strong application of property rights and binding contracts. I’m not convinced.

We’re missing two things: (1) the commons have their foundation in voluntary collective-action governance; and (2) the commons can be conceived as a market. If you were to take ‘commons’ out of the last two sentences, then most libertarians would be happy. If you put it back in, there are calls for strong property rights to solve self-interested individuals from themselves.

Let’s talk about this for a minute.

Collective-action, by definition, is voluntary cooperation between private agents in civil society. Yes, voluntary. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? These institutions are complex environments characterised by implicit norms, tacit rules, and operational level decisions. They are not a free-for-all. Nor are they a form of re-distribution.

If you disagree with the commons as a voluntary system of institutional rules to share resources, then you’re going to have to disagree with firms, too. That’s what firms are – they coordinate and share resources under rules.

Collective-action governance is one of the purest forms of freedom. Contracts are often unwritten and implicit. Punishment mechanisms are set up by the agents themselves. Rules are specifically tailored to the social dilemma at hand. There’s little need for state protection of property rights through the courts. A well developed and evolved commons institution is an island of rules near absent from state pressures.

Sounds pretty free to me.

Further, the commons can be conceived as a form of market. Viewing the commons as a market seems counter-intuitive, yet it is not entirely crazy. They just look different; we’re not very good at understanding different institutions. The lines between market and non-market transactions are blurred.

This is best demonstrated through example: the innovation commons. The innovation commons are an emergent institution mixing technology and local Hayekian market knowledge through shared collective-action governance rules.

We have to remember that shared property is property, too. It’s not private individual property, like your home – but it is still property. There’s still a bundle of rights. There’s still exchanging of these bundles. There’s still a cost of entering and participating in the commons (often prior tacit knowledge or reputation). Sounds pretty market-like to me; and libertarians love markets.

Let’s take a more specific example – hackerspaces. Hackerspaces are collective-action institutions where private agents share local market knowledge, coalescing around certain technologies. The cost to enter the commons is the value of prior tacit knowledge. What’s exchanged is knowledge and technology. The exchange just isn’t in dollars, it’s through your contribution and cooperation (see a recent paper by Kealey and Ricketts 2014, on contribution goods).

The commons are not a free-for-all utopian commune. They’re an institution that appears effective at coordinating knowledge. You see, the commons and libertarians should be friends. We just need to take a step back before we (once again) label the commons as a remorseless tragedy and privatise them. Some failures should not render them obsolete. Rather, this should signal the complexity involved. From what we’ve learnt from economics over the past two decades – institutions matter and complexity matters. The commons encompass the two.

I am not suggesting the commons are economy-wide phenomena. Nor are they infallible (actually, they’re highly subject to failure). All I’m suggesting is that the next time you think about the commons, do not think of property first. Think of institutional governance – that is the challenge.

Ostrom suggested that institutional diversity may be as important as biological diversity. The commons are important to our institutional diversity, and should not be lost over an obsession with property rights. Property rights are the easy answer (because we understand them). This does not make an answer correct.

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