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7 Human Nature and the Commons

Rowe, Jonathan Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

When Jimmy Wales, a refugee from options trading, set out to create an encyclopedia online, he thought first of the Britannica model, except with volunteers. He assigned articles to professional experts and established panels for peer reviews. Then he started to write one himself—on options trading—and realized it was a drag.

It was like “handing in an essay at grad school,” he said later. So Wales shifted gears. He kept the volunteer model but made it an open and social experience rather than a hierarchical one. Anyone could write an entry on anything. The peer reviewers would be online readers themselves, who could correct factual errors and omissions and challenge biases.

To a conventional manager it might sound like a recipe for chaos. Yet within two weeks, the project generated more articles than it did in two years of the top-down model. The result is Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia that now has more than 10 million articles in more than 250 languages.1

To an economist it doesn’t make sense. People don’t work for free. Readers are “consumers,” not producers, and consumers don’t produce what they consume. Yet they are doing so; and this kind of social coproduction is flourishing not only on the Web but in society at large.

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3 A New Commons Story

Rowe, Jonathan Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

For decades, people have defended the commons and not known it. They’ve battled pollution, development, corporate marketing assaults on their kids, and so many other things it’s hard to keep track. What’s been missing is a story that unifies all these seemingly unrelated battles with the force of a powerful idea.

Think about the market story. A few centuries ago, people looked at economic life and saw many seemingly unrelated things. They saw factories and farms, shipping firms and theaters, and so on. Then, in 1776, Adam Smith came along and said, “These aren’t separate things. They are different aspects of the same thing—the market.”1 His insight gave mental shape to the whole, and the idea of the market with its beneficent “invisible hand” has dominated public imagination ever since.

It has certainly made life easy for the Wall Street Journal. Without the market to cast a devotional glow upon private transactions, the Journal would be left with only a welter of deals to report. The market ties those mundane transactions into a larger narrative of uplift and grace. The editorial writers do not have to articulate this, of course; it is embedded in the magical word market.

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Join the Discussion

Peter Barnes Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub
Medium 9781609948337

21 New Institutions Needed

Rowe, Jonathan Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

The kind of social structure that makes commons productive in the Alps of Switzerland, the rice fields of the Philippines, and many other settings are not always possible in the United States. What’s more, some commons—such as the oceans and the atmosphere—are too large to be amenable to participatory management. The challenge is to build formal institutions that replicate the essential features of commons even if they cannot include the social dynamic of local settings.

One essential feature is equity. Commons serve all, either equally or by a just distributional standard, subject to necessary rules for access and use. A second essential feature is inter-generational responsibility. Corporations are programmed to maximize gains for the quarter or year. Commons, properly designed, are encoded to preserve assets for future generations.

There are times when government can manage commons according to these rules. For example, Central Park functions admirably as a commons under city ownership. But government ownership is not always possible or best. In the United States, continuing pressure on national forests and other public lands illustrates the vulnerability of ownership that is ultimately political. At the local level, there are similar pressures to invade public spaces with corporate sponsorships, advertising, and so on.

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5 Stop the Invasions!

Rowe, Jonathan Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

To get to San Francisco from where I live, I usually drive through the hamlet of Nicasio. It’s just a scattering of wooden structures around a community baseball field. The hills beyond are mainly ranches, not much changed from a century ago.

Recently, a sign appeared by the road there. “SOON TO BE BUILT ON THIS SITE,” it said, and my insides went code red. I thought of bulldozers, asphalt, a mange of houses with glandular disorders. Then I saw the smaller print: “Thanks to your help, absolutely nothing.”

The sign was the work of a local organization raising funds to buy the land so that developers couldn’t. The large type triggered something many Americans feel: a brooding sense of impending loss. This sense begins with wilderness and open space but doesn’t end there. Everywhere we look, something we thought was off-limits to the market is falling prey to it: schools, genes, children’s imagination and play, urban water systems. Development is decimating our natural ecology just as big box stores are destroying the social ecology of Main Streets.

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