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July 18, 2013 4:27 PM Priceless Resources

By Ed Kilgore

Since libertarianism is an inescapable topic these days, it’s very useful to remember that aside from the antitheses of the terrifying State and the liberty-seeking Individual (or even those private “intermediary institutions” some tradition-minded conservatives like to discuss when trying to dismantle the State), there are an immense number of resources essential for civilized life that are held “in common,” some by public ownership, some by convention. The casual contempt towards “the commons”—or any good that cannot be valued by a market—that suffuses so much of contemporary politics and economics on the Right is the subject of a fascinating review by Monthly alum Tim Noah of a book by another Monthly alum (the late Jonathan Rowe) which appears in the July/August issue of the magazine.

Rowe’s book, Our Common Wealth (actually a posthumous compilation of essays and unpublished material put together by Peter Barnes, with additional comments from the environmental activists and writers Bill McKibben and David Bollier) continues his famous meditations on “the commons,” with special attention to the backlash against the very idea that has increasingly dominated conservative thinking dating back to the publication of Garret Hardin’s famous Science essay “The Tragedy of the Commons” in 1968. Notes Noah, drawing on and extending Rowe’s observations:

Had Hardin bothered to consult empirical evidence, he would have learned that back in the days when actual farmers really did share land for hunting, foraging, and grazing, they did not behave like the utility-maximizing clods in his theoretical model. They worked together, sharing tools and labor to maintain these precious plots of land so that successive generations could prosper in the same place. This “worked well for hundreds of years,” Rowe writes.
Similar examples abound. Spain has maintained shared irrigation systems for 600 years, with farmers receiving water on a rotating basis and, during droughts, giving the most vulnerable crops the highest priority, regardless of who happens to own them. In the Swiss Alps, grazing pastures and forests continue to operate on the commons principle. And so on. Elinor Ostrom won a Nobel Prize in economics in 2009 for laying out such examples by way of refuting Hardin’s theory. Reviewing all available evidence, Ostrom was able to demonstrate that people and societies were much more willing than previously supposed—and much more competent—to work together to solve common problems. So maybe we can lick that global-warming problem after all.

Noah’s review also discusses the sometimes-ambiguous role of the State in investing in and protecting common resources, and the importance of non-public resources that no one owns and can’t be completely “valued” (e.g., the Web and Wikipedia).

Read the review and then the book, and you will be well-armed in discussions with “market fundamentalists” who believe anything worth having must be bought and sold and privately owned.

As a bonus, the review is accompanied by two photos of Noah and Rowe with Charlie Peters and Phil Keisling from their “salad days” at the Monthly.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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