Balancing the Commons, the Market and the State
“They hang the man and flog the woman that steal the goose from off the common, but let the greater villain loose that steals the common from the goose.” (English folk poem, ca. 1764)
“THE COMMONS, n., gifts of nature and society; the wealth we inherit or create together and must pass on, undiminished or enhanced, to our children; a sector of the economy that complements the corporate sector.” (The Commons Rising 2006, a report by the Friends of the Commons)
“The market needs a counterpoise with a different calculus. The ideal counterpoise isn’t the state. It’s the commons… The state’s role is to nurture both the commons and the market, and to maintain a healthy balance between them.” (The State of The Commons, a report by the Friends of the Commons)
From the State of the Commons report:
Key functions of the commons
- Basic sustenance. For most of human existence, the commons supplied everyone’s food, water, fuel and medicines.
- Ultimate source. The commons is the source of all natural resources and nature’s many replenishing services.
- Ultimate waste sink. The commons recycles water, oxygen, carbon and everything else we excrete, exhale and throw away.
- Knowledge bank and seedbed. The commons holds humanity’s vast store of science, art, customs and laws, and is the seedbed of all human creativity.
- Communication. Humans communicate through shared languages that are living products of many generations.
- Travel. Humans use the commons for land, sea and air travel.
- Community. The commons is the village tree, the public square, Main Street, the neighborhood and the Internet. Outside of families, it’s the glue that holds us together.
The commons, the market and the state
Conventional thinking divides the world between the market and the state. The market is responsible for productivity, while the state is responsible for control.
In reality, the economy has another sector that’s as valuable as the market and its necessary complement as well. This sector is the commons. The commons precedes and surrounds the market, is the source of most that enters it and the sink for all that leaves.
At one time the commons was vastly larger than the market. Today, however, the commons is in grave danger because the market relentlessly attacks it.
The market assault comes from two sides. With one hand, the market takes valuable stuff from the commons and privatizes it. Historians have called this ‘enclosure.’ With its other hand, the market dumps wastes and side-effects into the commons and says, “It’s your problem.” Economists call this ‘externalizing.’
Much that is called ‘growth’ today is actually a form of cannibalization in which the market diminishes the commons that ultimately sustains it.
The state’s role is to nurture both the commons and the market, and to maintain a healthy balance between them. This balancing role is essential to prevent humanity from devouring its own nest. Unfortunately, in recent years, the state has abandoned a balancing role and become a single-minded champion of the market.
So, how de we restore the balance? Are there examples of succesful attempts? The following readings provide further explanation and examples:
- The State of the Commons by Friends of the Commons. Download PDF >>
- The Commons Rising 2006 Report by Friends of the Commons. Download PDF >>
- Revisiting the Commons: Local Lessons, Global Challenges by Elinor Ostrom, Joanna Burger, Christopher B. Field, Richard B. Norgaard, David Policansky. Read Key Findings >>
- The Parallel Economy of the Commons by Jonathan Rowe. Download PDF >>