The Tragedy is “the Commons,” Part 3

In the 1980s, a school of thought emerged that challenged Garrett Hardin’s alternatives of privatization or regulation. This school was a revival of a movement from the Progressive Era, called Institutionalism, that studied how individuals interact to achieve their own “highest utility”—their self-interest—in utilizing the commons. Today, advocates of this school call themselves the New Institutionalists.

The New Institutionalists vary in terms of the details they advocate, but they agree on basic principles. Elinor Ostrom, a professor at Indiana University and the 2009 Nobel Prize winner in Political Economy, is regarded as one of the leading thinkers of this school, and thus serves as a good representative of the school.

The New Institutionalists claim to present a third “alternative” to privatization or government regulation. Ostrom, for example, argues that individuals can often avoid the tragedy of the commons without resorting to privatization or government control. Either may work in some situations, but neither will work in all situations. In her book, Govering the Commons, Ostrom presents case studies of a multitude of “commons” across the globe. Her case studies include fisheries, forests, grazing land, irrigation systems, and water resources, as well as what she considers both successful and unsuccessful management of the commons.

As a result of these studies, Ostrom develops a set of “principles” that allow individuals to manage the commons effectively without the need for government regulation. Commons that are managed most effectively—that is, the resource isn’t being depleted—follow these principles. Those commons that experience depleted resources do not follow the principles. Among the most significant of these principles are: the ability of users to set clearly defined boundaries on who may use the resource and the terms of use, a mechanism to monitor resource use, and a process to sanction those who violate the terms of use.

Ostrom argues that successful management of the commons cannot be achieved by centralized bureaucrats who issue edicts and mandates. They lack an intimate knowledge of the resource, local conditions, and don’t take into account the needs and desires of those using the resource. But privatization won’t work either, Ostrom claims, because the challenge is “how to impose private ownership when those currently using a commons [are] unwilling to change to a set of private rights to the commons” (page 12). In her concluding chapter, Ostrom writes: “If this study does nothing more than shatter the convictions of many policy analysts that the only way to solve [“commons”] problems is for external authorities to impose full private property rights or centralized regulation, it will have accomplished one major purpose” (page 182).

Consider what this means: rights are not objective and inalienable, but must be “imposed” by government. We are not born with the rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness; government must force these rights upon us. If this is true, what government gives, government can take away. If this is true, our rights are nothing more than permissions, which government may remove whenever it chooses. But this is not true.

Rights are not a subjective grant from government. A right, wrote Ayn Rand,

 pertains only to action—specifically, to freedom of action. It means freedom from physical compulsion, coercion or interference by other men.

Thus, for every individual, a right is the moral sanction of a positive—of his freedom to act on his own judgment, for his own goals, by his own voluntary, uncoerced choice. As to his neighbors, his rights impose no obligations on them except of a negative kind: to abstain from violating his rights.

Rights are neither granted nor imposed—they are a consequence and requirement of our nature.

The solution to the tragedy of the commons, according to Ostrom, is community control and management. In contrast to Hardin’s coercive regulatory agency, Ostrom contends that community control is voluntary and cooperative. To Ostrom, successful management of the commons means treating it as communal property, with access and terms of use determined by the community.

In some ways, Ostrom’s proposal mimics—and I stress mimics—a private property system. In a sense, the commons is treated as private property, with the community acting similar to a corporation. Members of the community act similar to shareholders. In these situations, the community controls access to and use of the resource, and many communities have done so successfully. However, there is a crucial distinction between a real corporation and these community regimes. A corporation is voluntary; the community regimes are coercive, despite Ostrom’s claims to the contrary. A corporation is individualistic, with each individual free to act on his own judgment; a community regime is collectivist, with individuals forced to abide by the demands and decisions of the group.

An example of this can be found in many of the lobster fisheries in Maine. In many parts of Maine, rules governing lobster fisheries have long been established and enforced by the lobstermen themselves. Often, access to a particular fishing area requires property ownership or family ties to a particular town. The result is a decision making process that involves considerable social pressure to go along with the desires of community leaders. James Acheson, a Professor of Anthropology and Marine Sciences at the University of Maine, has extensively studied Maine’s lobster industry. He writes that “gossip, slander, and ostracism are usually quite successful in forcing people into line with the expectations of the community.” And when that doesn’t work, dissenters can find their equipment damaged or destroyed. As an example, in May 2012, two lobster boats were sunk over a dispute. It is mob rule, in which the majority imposes its views on everyone by whatever means necessary.

In terms of essentials, Ostrom has not offered a new alternative to Hardin’s regulatory regime. All she has done is localize the initiators of force. Community control is no different from a centralized regulatory agency. In both instances, the individual is prohibited from acting on his own judgment. In both instances, the individual is forced to abide by the decisions and dictates of the collective—the majority. Both Hardin and Ostrom are advocates of altruism and believe that the individual exists to serve the collective.

Altruism and collectivism are the driving forces behind every movement on the Left, including the commons movement.

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