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Reprinted from
Grassroots Economic Organizing

September 29, 2014

Happy Commons Day!

Let's declare a national holiday to celebrate all that we share

(By James Jordan under a CC license.)

Here's what I learned about the commons during my economics education at the University of Montana (BA, Economics 2004):

Common-pool resource [n]: a type of good consisting of a natural or human-made resource system, whose size or characteristics makes it costly, but not impossible, to exclude potential beneficiaries from obtaining benefits from its use. Examples of common-pool resources include irrigation systems, fishing grounds, pastures and forests.

Unless these resources are privatized or owned by the state, they are doomed to over-use and eventual depletion in what is known as the “tragedy of the commons.” The discussion in my classes about managing common-pool resources moved between these two poles—with the more conservative people arguing for privatization and the more liberal encouraging state ownership and regulation.

What no one ever mentioned—not even the lone Marxian in our economics department—was the possibility of collective ownership of common-pool resources. This seems like a tremendous oversight in retrospect, especially after Indiana University professor Professor Elinor Ostrom was awarded the “Nobel Prize in Economics” in 2009 for her decades of research on just such arrangements.

An oversight, but an all-too-common one. Many people, even those without formal economics education, have heard of the “tragedy of the commons,” while many students and professors of economics still have little, if any, awareness of common-ownership as a solution to the so-called Tragedy of the Commons. The conventional wisdom within mainstream economics holds that privatization and state-ownership are the preferred policy options for managing common-pool resources.

This is a situation that needs to change. That's why I'm proposing that we in the commons movement declare August 7th National Commons Day. Why August 7th? Because that was Elinor Ostrom's birthday (she died in 2012). Besides being a Nobel Prize winner, Ostrom was also an engaging, witty expositor of the benefits of collective ownership and control of common resources.

 Mainstream economics has proven itself largely unequal to the task of providing useful guides to action in the real world. The twin solutions of privatization and state-ownership have not only failed to stop the over-utilization of common-pool resources, they have also led to public discontent, as local users feel beset by the decisions of unaccountable officials in far-off locales or, conversely, by the loss of once-public spaces and resources as they are put off limits in private hands.

The good news is that there are already time-tested, sustainable alternatives to the usual recommendations of the economists—the bad news is that these alternatives are rarely if ever discussed, either in policy-making circles or everyday discussions among citizens. Creating a National Commons Day will provide commoners, cooperators, and solidarity economy activists of all stripes a national platform for presenting an alternative vision and real-life examples of the commons to a larger audience.

A further benefit will be a recognition of the many forms of collective and common-ownership that exist all around us, but which we rarely notice. Land trusts, credit unions, co-ops, open-source software and creative commons licensing are just a few of the institutions and practices that we could celebrate in a National Commons Day.

But even more than a joyous celebration of all that we share, a National Commons Day could help connect and deepen collaboration between the many different groups and people working diligently across the country to create and maintain all kinds of commonly-shared resources.