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As enclosure has privatized more and more vital resources and distributed their benefits more inequitably, pressure increases to disclose the commons, to reassert over the accumulations of privitized acquisitions the prerogatives of humanity in common. As enclosing private property has been the driving endeavor in the modern era, disclosing the commons is becoming the essential concern in the postmodern era. Disclosing the commons is taking place in large part as communal activities emerge through self-organizing interactions over information networks and prove far more useful relative to their enclosed counterparts, quickly displacing them. Thus, Wikipedia has wrenched the encyclopedia out of the privatized realm and put it into the commons, disclosing anew the status of accumulated knowledge as an essential component of the human commons.
Disclosing the Commons
¶1 — Let us speculate, as if looking back from far in the future when the commonshad become fully disclosed, what the key dynamics in that disclosurfe would appear to have been. Let's start with four short propositions, phrased with some care, putting them sparely, recognizing that a full statement of them would have to address many complexities the spare statements pass over. Concentrating in this way on the core propositions makes clear what is at stake with the concept of "disclosing the commons."
- The commons is the unbounded sphere of human interaction with respect to which there are no externalities. It is the sum of what is taking place.
- The market is the sum of bounded planes of enclosed interaction that arise as people exchange items of private wealth created by asserting exclusive management over components of the commons (real property), by claiming ownership rights to the use of rationalized techniques within enclosed sectors of the commons (intellectual property), and by shifting significant costs and benefits (externalities) generated by the enclosed interactions out into the remainder of the commons, exempting those costs (negative externalities) and benefits (positive externalities) from the internal accounting within the market. As long as negative externalities are not of a sufficient scale to disrupt the equilibrium of the commons and the market within it, the market can appear to be a rationally efficient mechanism for managing the allocation of resources and effort.
- As negative externalities start to disrupt the equilibrium of the whole, however, the operations of the market will appear increasingly irrational. Then, economically rational actors would start to choose to "disclose the commons," reversing acts of enclosure into real and intellectual property, when the marginal utility of the resources required to maintain enclosure in the market falls below the utility attainable were the activity pursued as part of the unenclosed commons shared by all its members. An historic phase of progressive enclosure of the commons would give way to the growing disclosure of the commons.
- Since such a shift, itself,requires some energy to begin taking place, the actual change from enclosure to disclosure will not become evident until after a latency period has passed. The shift in marginal utility will continue to mount until it crosses a threshold of significance or a disturbance of the system triggers a cascading adoption of the new decision principle, moving enclosed property back into the commons, allowing the costs and benefits of its use to be accounted for more completely and rigorously.
Of course, tracing the operation of these propositions through actual historical processes, or projecting them through prospective historical developments, would show them to be vastly more complicated. Nevertheless, we can plausibly cast the narrative of historical experience over the past 5 centuries or so as one of the progressive growth of enclosure of physical and intellectual property, with the negative externalities of the process appearing to threaten the global habitat as a whole. Worry that the overall operations of the market as a whole is becoming fundamental irrational and inefficient in its operations is becoming palpable.
¶2 — Contemporary market apologists will recoil at the idea of disclosing the commons. Doing so would be to leap from the frying pan into the fire. After all, people have legitimated historical acts of enclosure primarily as a way of avoiding the inefficiencies and irrationalities that characterized managing resources on the principles of the commons. They point to Garrett Hardin's thought experiment, "The Tragedy of the Commons," as theoretical confirmation the long record of practical critiques.
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¶3 — Carlyle's reaction was more radical. To speak of the commons in a genuine sense, a theorist had to conceptualize it in an inclusive way as the totality of humanly meaningful resources prior to any intrusive enclosures. By itself, a labor theory of property did not justify private property, for all labor used the commons through its tools, know-how, and organization. It was strictly private neither by logical necessity nor by historical primacy. Indeed, if humanity subjected the comprehensive commons to an unending drive towards ever-increasing use, this inclusive commons would be tragic in the way Hardin had depicted. Carlyle suspected that Hardin had not meant his thought experiment about excessive grazing on the village green to serve as an apology for enclosure, but quite the reverse, as a warning against the uncontrolled exploitation of the planet, understood as the common habitat of humanity. The drive to excessive exploitation had been hard at work in the world, evident in resource scarcities and global warming. But the chief form of freeloading on the common patrimony was not Hardin's hapless peasant grazing an added cow, but the aristocrats, the gentry, the captains of commerce and industry, the impersonal corporations—fictitious persons yet amoral entities. These were the freeloaders, who enclosed vast portions of the all-inclusive commons by asserting the prerogatives of personal property, real and intellectual. By these means, they increased their private returns by withholding benefits from those kept out and by transferring internally incurred costs off their own books to external accounts. That was the import of Carlyle's second proposition. And he was not so naïve that he expected freeloaders to desist from exploiting the commons simply from the goodness of their hearts—hence his third and fourth propositions.
¶4 — Freeloading itself incurred costs to the freeloader, as well as benefits, which in the realm of economic man had to pass the cost-benefit analysis of rational choice. Do the benefits of asserting and maintaining enclosure exceed its costs? In the great era of capitalism, freeloading had appeared to pay so well that freeloaders were able to proclaim their good conscience, convincing the great majority that their freeloading was to the benefit of all. "A rising tide lifts boats large and small," as the seductive saying went. So beguiled, the null hypothesis, what people assumed to be true in the absence of strong evidence in favor of something else, had been the conviction that enclosure paid. Early in the twenty-first century, however, the rich, a small but powerful class, enjoying plutocratic privilege, were getting rapidly richer while the ability of developed economies to sustain full employment, especially for the least advantaged, was weakening, profoundly straining trickle-down theories of economics. It took many decades for the freeloading system to undermine itself, but eventually it did. And of course, by now, we have inverted its null hypothesis: in all but a very few, highly specialized forms of human interaction, enclosure leads to wasteful excesses and scarcities, distortions in the intelligent allocation of resources and human effort. For the great majority of human activities, the careful tending of the commons provides an optimum sufficiency for all. But from the perspective of the early twenty-first century, unchecked freeloading, then extolled as the system of free enterprise, buttressed by the superstition that free markets optimally allocated resources, reigned supreme. Yet many had a nagging question: How long would people ignore the cost of externalities exempted from the freeloaders' accounts?
¶5 — In the timescale of journalism and electoral politics, and even more in the retrospective glow of conservative mentalities, economic growth had been the preeminent public goal, pre-empting concerns for full employment or sophisticated measures of public happiness and human fulfillment. Most of the world's peoples had yet to enjoy post-industrial living standards, and economic growth was strongest in these areas of high population and high demand—what were then the countries of China, India, Brazil, Argentina, Malaysia, South Korea, Mexico, and more. But even in areas of high growth, many in positions of influence realized that the freeloading needed to stop. Freeloaders were shifting vast accumulating costs onto the commons, where they were included in no evident accounting. All the same, they were becoming inescapably evident, and subject to precise account, in the form of environmental degradation, climate warming, resource depletion, and the failure of the freeloading system to provide growing numbers with opportunities for creative, fulfilling work, not to mention basic education, health care, and security.
¶6 — Further, in areas of the world with mature economies, growing numbers of people doubted that the conditions of life were getting better and better when measured by the growth of GDP. On average, perhaps. But people should realize that a nicely growing average could disguise accelerating inequalities. Critics were showing how, for every 100 persons, the 60 least advantaged had been suffering a slow, steady decline; 30, modestly favored, had been holding their own, working longer to avoid declining pay; 9, the better off, had been doing OK, thank you; and 1, the very wealthy, had been enjoying continuous engorgement. Many people, perhaps most, felt themselves on a treadmill, running harder and harder to keep their living standards advancing. Might they start asking whether they had been running up lasting debt to pay for transient satisfactions? When times worsened and the number to whom life posed the question—"Kleiner Mann, Was Nun?" "Little man, what now?"—civic trajectories became hard to predict or control. For how long would the favored few continue to persuade most Americans to bear the costs of maintaining the global freeloading system with so little benefit to show for it?
¶7 — Thus, early in the twenty-first century, a minority, growing more vocal, doubted the probity of enclosure, perhaps to entertain the primacy of an inclusive commons. Developments with respect to real property, intellectual property, and externalities were each changing the prevailing conditions relative to which rational actors might judge the costs and benefits of enclosure in the commons. Hence, perhaps, the unthinkable was becoming thinkable. Were grounds plausible for thinking that rational actors would possibly recalibrate their cost-benefit calculus with respect to real property, intellectual property, and externalities? Considering it an open question seemed reasonable.
- First, real property: the scope and efficiency of material production was reaching a point at which basic sufficiency for all was becoming a realistic potentiality. In a world in which there was always too little, "enough" and "more" were indistinguishable, but if sufficiency were feasible, the difference between "enough" and "more" would become a real and significant question. Early in the twenty-first century, the question of "enough" versus "more" was beginning to sharpen. In assessing the quality of life, people began to apply new measures ofhappiness and the attainment of human capabilities to complement more traditional measures that charted the growth of economic GDP. To many, consumption patterns of the very rich were appearing to be excessive and frivolous, little but a self-destructive compulsion, harmful to all.
- Second, intellectual property: the shift from mechanical to digital means for reproducing and disseminating cultural resources radically increased the costs required to maintain the enclosure of intellectual property and diminished the comparative advantage that the holders of intellectual property could derive vis-à-vis the common stock. Getting to the leading edge of innovation had become very expensive and the benefits of it highly transient, for an innovation quickly dropped in price and achieved widespread use. Some major corporations were reducing reliance on exclusive control over their intellectual property, entering into extensive patent sharing and putting significant bodies of code into the realm of open source, preferring to compete via the quality of their services in an open intellectual commons.
- Third, externalities: the costs of accrued externalities were steadily mounting through resource depletion, environmental pollution, and climate change. These costs were more and more visible, harder to deny without mongering mindless unreason, and susceptible to inclusion in honest and accurate accounts. Slick accounting still kept costly externalities off the books, but the defense of doing so was becoming more strident and devious, perhaps somewhat more isolated too.
Neither Carlyle nor any other critic could have a detailed idea of the future, but they could foresee the possibility that the future might have characteristics significantly different from those of their present, perhaps making an inclusive commons primary in the reasoned conduct of human life.