The Tragedy is “the Commons,” Part 4

According to today’s commons movement, the commons includes much more than resources such as air and water. For example, the website for On the Commons, an organization dedicated to the commons movement, states that the commons is “a social system for the long-term stewardship of resources that preserves shared values and community identity.”

This is a very vague definition, and it raises more questions than it answers. Which resources do they mean? Which shared values? What does community identity mean? Fortunately, we don’t need to guess. Other commoners, which is what advocates of the commons appropriately call themselves, tell us quite clearly.

The Commonweal Institute, a “progressive” think tank, issued a report in 2008 (the report is no longer available online) that states:

The Commons are what we share, what no one can claim as private property and what all of us need to live healthy, happy lives. We need The Commons as individuals and our communities need to use The Commons effectively in order to function and thrive. The Commons include the environment, transportation and power infrastructure, education, language, and cultural heritage.

Among other concretes cited by commoners are information, culture, knowledge, television, and software. The implications of these claims may not be clear. But again, we don’t need to rely on implications, for commoners are quite explicit about their meaning and goals.

While commons advocates welcome the Internet and the vast information it makes available, they decry the “enclosure” of much online content. Nancy Kranich, in a report titled The Information Commons: A Public Policy Report, writes that “much online content is now wrapped, packaged, and restricted−treated as private rather than common property. This ‘walled garden’ or ‘enclosure’ online creates an inequitable and often inaccessible information marketplace.” Comparing this to the privatization of fields, she claims, “No single decision or act caused the enclosure of public fields—a story similar to today’s enclosure of the commons of the mind.” Kranich goes on:

A leader in the field, Elinor Ostrom, has analyzed the characteristics of resources held in common, and concluded that the common property regimes that regulate these resources are distinguished by group, rather than individual, control; the group is then responsible for balancing benefits and costs, defining who may participate in resource use and to what degree, and designating who will make management decisions.[v]

Kranich wants the group—the community—to determine “who may participate in resource use and to what degree.” Remember the resources that she is referring to: information and knowledge, that is, the products of the mind.

Consider what this means. If you write a book, a song, or software, you should not be free to determine how it will be used, who has access to it, or anything else. These resources should be under the control of the group, not the individual who created them. The group, not the individual, should determine “who may participate in resource use and to what degree.” Kranich is not alone in holding this view.

At the website On the Commons, activist David Bollier writes:

One of the great unacknowledged problems of our time is the enclosure of the commons, the expropriation and commercialization of shared resources, usually for private market gain. Enclosure can be seen in the patenting of genes and lifeforms, the use of copyrights to lock up creativity and culture, the privatization of water and land, and attempts to transform the open Internet into a closed, proprietary marketplace, among many other enclosures.

Enclosure is about dispossession. It privatizes and commodifies resources that belong to a community or to everyone, and dismantles a commons-based culture (egalitarian co-production and co-governance) with a market order (money-based producer/consumer relationships and hierarchies)….

[T]he contemporary struggle of commoners is to find new structures of law, institutional form and social practice that can enable diverse sorts of commons to work at larger scales and to protect their resources from market enclosure….

Thus to actualize the commons and deter market enclosures, we need innovations in law, public policy, commons-based governance, social practice and culture.

Like Kranich, Bollier believes that copyrights “enclose” resources that properly belong to a community. Like Obama, he believes that production is a collective effort, that individuals don’t build things. A business, a book, or a song is not the result of individual achievement, but “egalitarian co-production.” Because I have learned from others, I didn’t really write this. Because you have learned from teachers, mentors, and colleagues, your accomplishments aren’t your own. According to Kranich, Bollier, and Obama, achievement and production is a collective enterprise, and what the collective builds, the collective owns and should control.

Not surprisingly, Bollier, Kranich, and other commoners hold that the individual exists solely to serve the collective. They hold that the individual must sacrifice his thinking and achievements to the group. They want the products of your mind—your discoveries, inventions, and creations—to be treated as communal property, to be used and disposed of as the group chooses. This is the collectivization of the mind. It is an attempt to submit the mind to the control of the group. This is the end—both logically and politically—of the commons movement. It is also the logical consequence of altruism/collectivism.

If service to others is a moral duty, as altruism claims, an individual cannot act as his life requires. Instead, he must act according to the needs and demands of his others. His judgment of what is best for his life becomes irrelevant. Instead, he must defer to the needs of others. His mind and his life become communal property—a part of the commons.

The influence of these ideas is not confined to the ivory towers of academia. Indeed, saw an attempt to put these ideas into practice in the Occupy movement.

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