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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

From Homo Economicus to the Commoner: Beyond the Neoliberal Subject

David Bollier and Ezra Rosser in Conversation on the Commons

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July 4, 2014
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[Editor's Note: This is the second in a series of transctiptions of the This Land is Your Land: Remaking Property After Neo-liberalism conference that was held this April by Unbound: the Harvard Journal of the Legal Left.  The transcription of Duncan Kennedy's opening remarks can be found here.  A reflection on the conference by David Bollier can be found here. This transcription covers the segment of the video starting at 48:28 and ending at 1:28:33.  Part two of this transcription is here.]

Erum Sattar: So I think what we do is [...] move right [...] into this first panel. That discussion was so rich [...] I have lots of statements and questions, and I’m sure all of you do, also. So let me quickly introduce- to my right is Ezra Rosser from the American University Washington College of Law, [who] has written lots on Indian law. I’ve been looking up the stuff, there’s just lots and lots of very interesting discussions to have with him. And David Bollier, whom you just heard, he’s introduced himself. He’s an author, activist, blogger, and consultant, and his latest book is called Think Like a Commoner: A Short Introduction to the Life of the Commons.

We start off with each of them speaking for a little while. They can take[...] 10- [or] 15-odd minutes- whatever they are happy to work with. But we do want to make this very, very interactive. [...] So we jump right in, but really feel free, and I’ve been told to sort of call upon people to [...] comment where I think that they can fruitfully engage with the ongoing discussion. So we do want this to be really interactive before some kind of formal time that we ask for your engagement.


David Bollier: Ok, I’ll be happy to go first . Let me first introduce myself as a nonacademic refugee from Washington politics who has, for the past 10 or 15 years, been on the hot trail of the commons as an alternative to some of the--what I find--less productive if not sterile left/right debates. Much of my work is involved internationally, where Europe and the Global South are more hospitable to some of these conversations than domestically.

But let’s just start with the idea of “homo economicus”, which I find grotesquely inadequate for developing a new polity. [I]t’s such a seriously limited picture of what human beings actually are, and I think this is becoming more and more evident. Just two bodies of knowledge where this is so... One: Evolutionary science is increasingly showing that human beings are naturally, structurally predisposed to cooperation and reciprocity of all sorts. So, that’s a profound evolutionary theme. People like E.O. Wilson and David Sloan Wilson and Samuel Bowles and Mark Nowak [Editor’s note: Martin Nowak?] are really demonstrating this.

Then, the internet is also demonstrating this in profound ways, that social cooperation and sharing [are] actually out-competing or out-cooperating the market in many cases, and we see this in the huge proliferation of free software, open-access scholarly journals, open educational resources movement, wiki. It goes on and on, in which [...] markets are very expensive and have a huge overhead to work. So I want to propose, for this discussion, the commons as an alternative framework for starting to get beyond homo economicus and the whole edifice of policy and law upon which that presumption of what human beings are is based.

Think Like a Commoner, which came out two months ago, was my attempt to distill a lot of these broad areas of conversations going on here. Let me just quickly go through some key points. One: Garrett Hardin, the author of The Tragedy of the Commons essay in 1968, was seriously wrong. He was describing a free for all, an open access regime, [and] not a managed commons in which there’s a community with rules, with governance, with sanctions against free riders, and so forth.

Much of the work to disabuse the world of that came from Elinor Ostrom, the political scientist from Indiana University who died in 2012, who, over the course of decades, through extensive field work and creative theorizing, showed that people can and do successfully manage commons over time. She studied mostly natural resource commons in [...] so-called “developing countries.” She developed a whole scholarship--that’s international and broad--demonstrating this. I’ve been involved with an international movement that has sort of grown up parallel to that and building upon the academic scholarship to explore its political and policy dimensions, and this is trying to build a new cultural-political space, one might say, in the midst of the imploding failures of, or disabilities of, the classic modernist State and institutions.

And so the commons language is kind of this scaffolding or meta-language--certainly not a totalizing ideology--for imagining this and a staging area [...] for bringing together a variety of different constituencies. These consist of the digital world, the indigenous peoples’ world, traditional societies, urban gardens, right to the city, academia as a cluster of all sorts of commons, the re-localization movement, the transition town movement, the degrowth movement in Europe, and so on.

Not all of these necessarily prescribe to commons principles qua commons, but they’re certainly [of] close kinship because they have shared principles of self-organized governance and resource management as the way to develop a different ethic, logic, worldview, and, as necessary--pragmatically--new legal forms. And, I might add, please don’t confuse the commons as a synonym for “the public interest” or “the common good.” It has much deeper intellectual and historical roots.

But one reason the liberal polity and law has such problems with the commons is it doesn’t understand. It only understands individual rights, conventional property law, economic growth, property rights as a tool for economic growth, consumerism, and that whole cluster of associated concepts[...]I describe the Market/State, a duopoly, as being so allied that it’s almost a deception to think that the State can represent people democratically.

So, the commons is really kind of an assault, but not necessarily directly politically so, on the Market/State duopoly, and so at least as a way to imagine alternative ways of organizing social relationships and provisioning beyond the market. So, it opens up access to other ways of knowing besides simply the straight-up cognitive, intellectual ways that affectional labor, our relationship with resources, our relationships with each other have standing for devising types of law. As I mentioned a moment ago, I call this “vernacular law”, which ought to have standing vis-a-vis “the law” as the State imagines law.

So in some ways, we need to imagine different types of law in a really profoundly different ontological and epistemological sense, not as a philosophical exercise, I might add, but as a practical one. And I think that we see this played out in all sorts of different functioning commons that are out there. So, a key issue in all of this, I think, is language as the sanctioner for categories of thought and action. And we need to sort of slip the shackles of some of the existing categories that I find inaccurate, reductionist, politically regressive. [...]

I would share the precaution of Professor Kennedy that property law should not be regarded as a magic bullet. What matters are the social relationships and the capacity to “common,” as a verb. The great historian of the commons Peter Linebaugh says, “there is no commons without commoning,” and I think we need to keep that in mind: That it’s a verb, and that lies at the center of the transformative vision- not objectifications of law which we then broker and negotiate that way.

So, we need to open up some new conversations in the way that law interacts with social action and behavior. And we need some serious hacks into property law the way that the General Public License and software acted as a way to turn copyright law inside-out and make sharing the de facto, legally enforceable norm as opposed to the opposite. But also note that that was simply a backstop for the social relationships, and, in fact, GPL is not really litigated much. It simply gives a confidence level that the social relationships will not be destroyed.

Other types of hacks: the CCL (Creative Commons licenses); the public trust doctrine in environmental law is really a wide-open territory for innovation; there’s a lot of new multi-stakeholder cooperatives that are developing--some friends of mine in Italy are experimenting with what they call “commons-public partnerships” as opposed to the public-private partnerships. There’s a lot of different types of stakeholder trusts which build on the model of the Alaska Permanent Fund, which gives non-wage income to ordinary people, about a thousand dollars a year to citizens of Alaska. Some traditional communities are developing what are called “biocultural community protocols” to give legal standing to their commons when it comes into encounters with the neoliberal trade regimes, and then we have lots of interesting experiments that CELDF (the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund) is exploring to try to help communities protect themselves against enclosure.

So, all of this really adds up to a commons imaginary based on the notion of the person as commoner as opposed to homo economicus[...] [W]e can then start to build out different notions of economics, politics, and culture.

So let me just conclude quickly by saying that there are some practical advantages that the commons discourse gives us in this whole conversation beyond left or right. And I might just make a passing note that the commons, I think, is a transpolitical concept in the sense that conservatives like it because it invites responsibility and community; liberals like it because it has an element of social justice; leftists like it because it has elements of controls on the market; libertarians like it because it allows for and enables individual initiative. So, I think it helps us scramble some of the categories not only politically but between public/private, which implies government/market. It scrambles objective/subjective because it allows subjective to come to the fore. It scrambles collective/individual in a new category.

But the five advantages that I wanted to say were: It has a legal history we can draw upon, going back to the Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest, which is an often ignored document that protected commoners’ rights; it helps internalize externalities as part of its governance structure; it helps critique the existing market system of neoliberalism and homo economicus with an alternative, but it goes beyond that by providing affirmative working alternatives so it’s not just an ideological posture or stance but something that has a certain responsibility to work; and then, finally, I think it’s a different worldview, logic, and ethic that goes beyond many of the tired categories of our time- both the political categories of our time but also the deeper ones of modernity and the mechanical tropes that we use.

And this is not a call--a romantic call--for a return to the pre-modern world, but it is a call to recognize certain constraints on unfettered markets that the regulatory State has been unable to achieve. And I think there are many instances where it’s been successful at challenging the conventional Market/State duopoly. So, with that, there’s many other things we can and should discuss, but that’s my general approach and framework to this discussion.


Erum Sattar: So, Ezra, please...


Ezra Rosser: Great. [...] So, I’m just going to start off. I’m going to do a couple quick notes as far as introduction and then try to connect it to the conversation that we just started. First, as far as a personal [introduction], whenever you go to these things you wonder, “What does the speaker want you to remember?” And I’m just going to tell you I was Duncan’s mentee and came from an Indian reservation. I’m white, but I lived on a Navajo reservation. And so, if you think of poverty stuff or Navajos, I want you to think of me, a white guy. So, as far as Duncan, let me just say a quick note which is [that] I was Duncan’s mentee despite really never taking Duncan. I had him for one class. I spoke, as I recall, once the first day, and then we met after that to talk about it, about why I was a gunner and no one else was, and that sufficiently silenced me. And I think the nice thing here is it’s a lesson on the value of these contributions, and Duncan has been a friend since.

As far as [...] the topic of today, I think one real question to have--and I’m going to come at this from a property theorist perspective more than anything, although a little poverty--is whether or not to work with or against property. And I think this is a challenge that you have as an academic and, also, if you’re interested in limited equity co-ops or whatever it is your particular thing you’re interested in. And just to say a little bit about that, I think at this building you have some excellent property scholars--I’m going to talk a little bit about some of them.

But one of the questions is [...] even the most left things they’re saying, are they just incorporating their left ideas within the existing system, or is it a challenge to it? [...] On limited equity co-ops, you have this question... Here’s this idea that in some contexts looks very left and great and then, in other contexts, it can take a different form.

And so the form that it took most recently is Lee Fennell, who’s this professor now in Chicago, she wrote about rethinking homes in terms of dividing equity and, well, dividing use from ownership interest and the upside and the downside. And that seems like just borrowing from limited equity and applying it broadly. [...] And so the question [is] “Is that good or bad?”,

And, to answer that, I think we come back to, you know, if you’re more conservative or you’re more of an [economics] bent, you might think this is empirics. Right? Let’s look at this. Empirics. “Does this better the world or not?” And just do a sort of calculation that we’re all familiar with from law and economics. Or, if you’re not from that standpoint, you might think, “Well, it’s all contextual. I need to know a lot more about these people. I need to understand who’s going to occupy that and what the investors are going to do.” But the question becomes [is] any of that really getting us out of the property standpoint?

So, the first introductory comment said that Unbound was oppositional and rebellious, and then they also said that this was going to be an open conversation. Let me just make a note about open conversations: I find them very risky. So I put on a lot of conferences--I never have an open conversation, largely because you just don’t know what they’re going to say.

The most risky conversation--and I promise this will connect--the most risky conversation I have everyday is I ask my four-and-a-half year-old Matteo [...] “What did you do in school?” And he usually says--well, right now his best friend is breaking up with him--so he says, “Joshie played with me,” or “Joshie didn’t play with me.” That’s our conversation.

But the risky part is that sometimes he says things that you just don’t want to hear. So sometimes He said, “I drew a painting,” and I asked, “Well, what’s the painting of?”

“The painting is of Daniel.” And I was like, “Well what is Daniel doing?”

“Well, I drew an ‘X’ over Daniel because I don’t want to see Daniel anymore.” right?

I think the same thing can be said of property. We ask a lot of property, but we’re not sure what signal that property is saying, right?

So I love David’s start on the idea of the limited picture of--and here we’re going to try to make it a conversation--the limited picture of what humans are, and I think that’s right. Property has this narrow conception of what humans are. But I don’t think it’s on the left or the right that we’re pushing against that narrow conception. So on the left, what David said is basically what Greg Alexander and Eduardo Penalver--who you’ll hear later today--said in their discussion of the social origins of property and the social nature of property. It’s also, for property scholars, what State v. Shack says. This is an idea that property serves human values. And so the left is saying this, and in my own work [...] I challenge just how left it is, but it’s still broadly understood [as being] the left.

And on the right, Smith and Merrill, who we typically see as the conservative exclusion theorists, are all about the information costs. But even if you think about information cost theory, that really is taking a different understanding than the rational actor. It is based entirely on the idea that people do not have full information, and, therefore, the system should deal with people as they are, which is imperfect.

And I think similarly with the commons. So I, as I’ve said, grew up in part on the reservation. And you can look at the reservation and [...] when Matteo showed up at the reservation on spring break, he looked around and he said, “No hay nada” (There’s nothing here). “Dad, why is there nothing here?” And so, he looked around and saw nothing. I think a lot of non-Indians, when they show up on the reservation, they either see nothing or they see a lot of commons .

What they don’t see is [...] there was a high school there that needed to be placed. The entire community agreed it needed to be placed. And this is a desert. You don’t see anything. From our perspective, there’s nothing there. It took them seven years to find people willing to give up their land use rights in order to place this high school that everyone agreed was necessary.

And, similarly, I think [...] you can see this in scholarship. I think Ostrom’s great[...] [O]ne question, though, is why does Ostrom--though while it may be taught here, it’s not taught generally. So when Ostrom won the nobel prize, Paul Krugman--who I’m sure many of you read religiously--Paul Krugman wrote, “I don’t know who she is, and she just won the Nobel Prize” [...] That’s a sign that this commons... there’s a question on the disconnect between what we’re teaching and what is happening.

And similarly, with Merrill [and] Smith’s recent article on property strategy, he gives this idea that property--I think this does go to what Duncan was saying that we think of it as “just there”--it’s a thing that’s there, and he finds it in all these locations. And yet his discussion of some of these things--and these are the ones I care about, but also the family--it arguably ignores countercurrents to the main point, and so I agree fully with David that scrambling categories is valuable, and I just wonder if the left should be more willing to scramble categories as well and scramble their own categories rather than just seeking to scramble the exclusion category--which has been the main product of left thinking, I think, on property for the past ten years or five years. So that’s it.


Erum Sattar: So, David [...] [L]et’s respond. Let’s have a conversation amongst the two of you [...] or all three of us, and then we can sort of open this up.[...] Why don’t we pick up with Ostrom, right?


David Bollier: Well, I think it’s significant that she won the prize in 2009 right after the 2008 crash. They wanted to choose someone coming from a different perspective. She was not a classically trained economist. She was a political scientist. She, unlike most economists, had done field work. Imagine that. And, as a woman, the first woman to win that prize--to be, maybe, gender biased--she was more tuned into relationships as opposed to objective--all economics being about the brokering of objects.

And so I think she had a greater--far greater--sociological depth, even though she still worked within the rational actor framework of economics. But [she] provided an enormously important first refutation of Hardin. And, second of all, an edifice that can be built upon. I think some of us in the activist world are trying to move beyond some of her ontological commitments, which are more implicit--which because, especially in the digital world, we see all sorts of behaviors that defy that standard model [...] And I think that’s an important place to build from, as well in showing the plasticity and possibility of alternative social relationships.


Erum Sattar: So just one quick thing… So Duncan talked this morning about, you know, the Global South and the regime that is implemented there[...] [I]t’s given, and it’s in effect taken as a given. It’s accepted by states as [...] “this is the growth pattern, this is the growth model, this is what we need to do.” So [...] talk a little bit about how is it that what the activists are trying to do to make [...] the alternative sort of [...] visions [...]


David Bollier: Well, it’s about crawling out from under the boulder of neoliberal trade discourse, and many people are seeing that the nation-state cannot any longer be the chief actor even from the developing world. But it has to come from the commoners themselves- if you will allow that neologism.

I have a friend, Michel Bauwens, a Belgian, who is the head of the Peer to Peer [P2P] Foundation who is heading up a 9-month project for the government of Ecuador to explore how they could transition to a so-called “commons-based, peer-production economy.” And this is an example of the Global South saying we need to get out from this extractivist neocolonial trap and devise new ways. But a lot of this has to go beyond the nation-state which, so often, is hostile to commons because it’s an alternative source of authority and legitimacy and even power.

So this is kind of a third realm from the bottom-up that, I think, is even threatening to a lot of conventional nation-state governments. But we see how, in Africa, there’s [...] an international land grab, which is a conspiracy between the corrupt governments and international investors taking over lands that historically have been controlled by indigenous peoples and commoners. So, even if only politically, we need to open up a new front with different categories than those that are the dominant categories, I think.


Erum Sattar: Ok. And just very quickly, because I know Carolina is right here, and she happens to be from Ecuador, and we know that the president of Ecuador is going to come to speak at the Kennedy School next week, which is a very unusual thing. Do you just want to talk a little bit about this[?] [...] [D]o you know about this? Is this known, [...] this Peer-to-Peer Foundation and building this kind of alternate governance within Ecuador? I mean, what kind of models are you guys exploring? [...]


Carolina: [...] [Y]es, the president of Ecuador is coming next week. He will give an address actually about alternative development in Ecuador. Because, I guess, that in an extractive economy, finding an alternative to that is not as easy as people think. So people might think that this is a radical shift that we can go from an extractive model to something yet that has not been invented, so you should look for other kinds of more moderate alternatives in the short term.

Well, I guess that in Ecuador, there’s a strong support to Indians’ political movements now in the sense of they have, actually, property land in the form of collective property, and [...] that has been not recognized as property until now, but the problem is indeed on how to, like, disentangle that from the limitations of the recognition of property as right because that is, [...] for me, that is the problem that they have[...] [To] fight that just from the perspective of a right is [...] very complicated because it’s actually a problem of how to [...] decide how to make decisions about that stuff. It’s more like [a] political problem on the way how power is distributed to the owners of rights.

So- I guess- that after [...] 30 years of struggling for recognition, now that it’s recognized, this kind of collective property--now the problem is to recognize the mode of how decisions are made around the content of that. And especially because collective property of indigenous peoples is in the Amazon, mostly, where oil is and mining is, and we have some sort of problems with that now with extracting companies.


Erum Sattar: So, Ezra, please, if you could, speak to this [...] [Y]ou gave us the example of where it took seven years to put down a high school where everyone agreed that it was necessary. I mean, what about this conception of efficiency, right? So, “Neoliberalism is efficient. We can get things done. We can deliver growth…”


Ezra Rosser: Yeah [...] I actually think one of the challenges with this is--two thoughts--is that context matters a lot, and I’m [going to] keep saying that, but in some indigenous communities, the problem hasn’t been that we’re failing to recognize their form of property. It’s even when--and Singer wrote about this a couple years ago--even when they have property that looks just like ours and we should recognize it, and it’s there, and there’s no question, we have failed to recognize or--to put in a more strong term that an indigenous person in a book about economic development said--is that we deliberately just don’t recognize property.

And so in that case, the problem isn’t this “We need a new idea of property.” It’s that even when they have property that looks just like ours, we don’t give it any credibility in the same way as we do other forms. [...] [I]ndigenous peoples have some forms of collective property, but we [do,] too. So the one that I was thinking of was Kmart. Kmart or any real failed big box store, those are a collective ownership of property done through the stockholders [...] [T]hat’s what they’re doing, and we don’t have any problem recognizing it again and again: their property. It’s only when the people are either brown or indigenous that we don’t think it’s appropriate to recognize their property.

I think a related aspect about this, that David said, was this “Why is it that we’re paying attention to Ostrom now? Is this an opportunity?” And Rashmi and Nester did a paper about this related to the opportunity... When lefties have the crisis we [...] salivated, right? We thought, “Wow.” We got the moment, and we did to some degree, right? The ACA passed. But that’s about it, right? And so I think there is value in the moment we’re in, and some of this value could be translated into property. And the ACA [...] can be thought of as a property even though we think of that as a separate category. That, just like employment law, can be thought of as a category. And [a] move towards a commons could be thought of as another direction to use this opportunity. But if we don’t do something, the system is remarkably resilient.


David Bollier: And let me add, liberals are often complicit in that. Precisely because to venture onto the commons discourse is to venture into irrelevance or pariah-hood.

I don’t know how many Washington liberal policy friends I have for whom, “Well, it’s not politically relevant. It doesn’t go through Washington. It’s not policy driven. It doesn’t deal with power. Decentralized power being consequential?” Et cetera. And my belief is, as a former Washingtonian and a former liberal, is let’s cut the incremental losses and get some new logic going somehow with real projects that step up as opposed to [...] debates that we’re not going to win in the standard territories. In other words, let’s take the home turf advantage and try to push that.

In response to the comments a moment ago, a colleague--I won’t say a colleague--a friend, who is a prominent policy and law scholar in Italy, Stefano Rodota, has called for constitutionalizing the right of commoning, which comes out of a lot of Italian debates about the commons where it has far more currency. [...] [H]e’s also, I might add, a former high-level human rights treaty negotiator. So, he knows something whereof about human rights. And I think that’s a promising way to avoid the conventional trap of “right” being associated with a state vindication of that right. Because if you have the right to common, you have a certain carved out authority or sovereignty yourself: to be self-governing. And the State recognizes the public value of that authority, just as through corporate charters it recognizes the supposedly “public interest” being served by corporate chartering. So why can’t we have charters for commoning, which would palpably serve the public interest better than many corporate charters?


Erum Sattar: I just wanted to pick up something that Duncan was talking about, and just in the context of the limited-equity cooperatives[...] So it seems that the cooperative..the participants in it don’t get the value or whatever the market increase is, but there is a functional market within which they are operating, right? So that market is setting the value of this piece of land--and whether it’s through gentrification or other new developers wanting to come in [to] provide higher value housing, [that] is raising market values. So it seems that the discussion is happening within the context of an operational, functional market that is providing value, right? So the value is coming from-


David Bollier: Very narrow form of value.


Erum Sattar: Ok, so [...] talk through that. So if the market is the creator of value and everything else is just a division of value.


David Bollier: No. See, that’s the fundamental problem: that the market notion of value is taken--as presumptively the monetized value--is the only value that matters. The commons is a value proposition that suggests long term value, subtle qualitative issues, long term ecological issues, a whole host of “intangibles,” which are either monetized or considered inconsequential.

Those values need to be respected and are arguably at the root of a lot of our ecological and social problems today. So, for me, talking about the commons begins to intellectually validate--in a more coherent way--an alternative value proposition which has been by the way, has gone by the way. And it also was a way of making it functionally consequential as opposed to, you know, an abstract theory.


Erum Sattar: So talk a little bit about this, because I’m very interested in this conception of value and the robustness of the system [...] [S]o what’s a carbon tax? [...] [Y]ou know, it’s saying [...] you have pollution credits. So the market seems to have a way of dealing with environmental costs of doing business the regular way.


Ezra Rosser: Great. So I won’t...Theres a danger here. My one biggest mistake in law school, which I made once, and I saw students do it--and if you’ve been in Unger’s class, the biggest mistake you can make in Unger’s class is to say “the market”, right? [...] So i’m not going to say “the market”, and I would say Duncan is somewhat similar. Justin at Colorado wrote a similar paper that’s basically [like] here is Duncan made into a law review article about what the market is and the social construct of the market.

I think to connect it here, though, we have expectations, and that may be a better way to think of it ,or at least a more human way to think of it. We have different expectations, and we go into different things. And we have these expectations, and those expectations are grounded in the law, but they’re also grounded in the experience of the community around us. So, one concrete example is there is, in Montgomery County, [...] one of the communities right out of DC--very rich, very white community--that has a rule which was if you’re a developer, you have to develop this housing for poor people or working class people.

And so one of them is this community called Avenel, and my wife and I looked into renting [there]. It was a perfectly nice house. It was as a newspaper article said, “This is a normal house.” And all the houses around it are the “non-normal” houses. And it was 1,800 square [feet]. It was three floors. It was perfectly good, and also not keeping with Potomac, the larger surrounding community. And the question became, as people had bought in for very cheap through a lottery system, when they graduated from that, did they have a right to claim the gain or not. Should they have a right to claim? And, in this case, they had a right to claim because [...] there [were] no limitations put into that right.

And so that experience is what most of us do when we buy a house or when we do anything. We believe we have the right to claim this--and by “anything” I mean Harvard Law School or a law school [...] So, in my school, they’re in a different situation than people here. They are very upset--not because they’re not better that they went to law school--but because they’re not as good off as they expected to be able to claim. And there are different responses to that, and one that I just want to bring up is a possibility--that I think politically may be hard--and isn’t really thought of here, but that’s betterment gain. And this was an effort made in England to basically tax away the things that are not attributed to the individual owner. Well, that’s one stage that you could do.

And so a concrete example: If the Metro puts in a stop near you, your house goes up [in market value]. You had, perhaps, something to do with it, but very little. Should you get that entire gain? But I think, more generally, “What do you think society owes you?” could be a way to think about this. What expectations do we legitimately have on society, and what expectations do those who are less privileged have on society, as well.

And so--and I’ll stop with this example--right now we basically believe in the Horatio Alger idea: you work hard, you do well, you make money, and it’s yours. But other people who work hard later in life, or at bad points, don’t get that. And we have, in welfare, if a mother and a child are on welfare and the mother violates some rule and is kicked off welfare--and it can still be the rule “don’t sleep with men” even though that was to be dealt with by the court--that rule can lead to a full family sanction, which means the children don’t have a right to claim from society [...] for the violation by the mother.

And I think that idea--we don’t challenge that expectation loss, the expectation loss of the child--“I expect to be fed,” but we do accept fully the expectation of homeowners to gain the entire reward. And I think the commons just, to some degree, invites a rethinking of those expectations.


David Bollier: And if I can just add a little “p.s.” to that. I think to the extent that the equity-value can be embedded in the infrastructure design of the commons--and therefore distributed among participating commoners as a matter of entitlement--you avoid the liberal trap of the moral presumption against redistribution, because you’re talking about predistribution of what belongs to you in the first place as opposed to redistribution after the market has done its magic.

And I think that’s an important way to avoid a lot of traps of conventional politics and public policy is, again, by socializing within the design of the commons itself. And I would just mention--lots of examples within the digital world--but I would mention this fascinating new project in Fresno, California: a food commons, where [...] the commons structure will own [...] elements of a production/distribution/retail of local food, which they will then lease out to different entrepreneurial players. But this will allow the gains, which would otherwise be siphoned off as private profit, to be accrued to the food commons to allow fair labor, high quality food, safe food, and so forth. So, just an example.


Transcription by Robert Brown


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