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September 25, 2013

A Powerful Commons Tool We Overlook

Informal social customs often work better than laws in Influencing good behavior

Social customs are a force modern society underestimates when trying to influence desirable behavior in people. Even in troubled economic times when people vote down tax increases for essential public services, the vast majority of us voluntarily add 10-20 percent of the cost of a restaurant bill as a tip. There’s no law requiring this, no one will chase down the street after you shouting “thief, thief” if you don’t. But people tip anyway because it’s a time-honored custom. You feel guilty, like some kind of Ebenezer Scrooge, when you don’t.

This is an enforcement mechanism more powerful than a law book. Look at the number of people you know who would feel perfectly comfortable exceeding the speed limit when you are the in the passenger seat, compared to those who would stiff a waiter in front of you. The late Jonathan Rowe, a co-founder of On the Commons whose writing about the commons has been collected in the recently published book Our Common Wealth: The Hidden Economy That Makes Everything Else Work expressed this point strongly in a blog post that I just rediscovered:

Informal sanctions such as these are a neglected social resource. They often are more effective than formal ones and central to the functioning of many commons. They are one reason that the supposed “tragedy of the commons” is largely a canard, at the local level at least. In community gardens, for example, you do not take vegetables from your neighbor’s plot or blast raucous music when weeding your own. Most online communities adhere to certain standards regarding tone and content. People who violate them consistently are invited to go elsewhere.

Why not make more use of this non-government and non-market force? It would reinforce an awareness that we all are in this together – and it would work better to boot.