Notes on Property in Commons (draft)

[I’m publishing this draft work-in-progress here to make it easier to get feedback. Feel free to leave a question or comment]

Elinor Ostrom makes the point that commons-pool resources and commons property are different animals. Any particular commons resource can be held under a variety of different property regimes or property law systems. But commons resources and commons property are often confused and used interchangeably.

Resources vs Rights


The Bundle of Rights



Bundles, Systems, and Holders of Property Rights (Schlager and Ostrom 1992)

“…most institutional analysts are familiar with the Schlager and Ostrom work on property rights (Schlager, Edella, and Elinor Ostrom. “Property-rights regimes and natural resources: a conceptual analysis.” Land economics (1992): 249-262.). In this piece, they lay out a conceptual map for bundling of various types of property rights with a goal of showing that ownership is more than a simple binary division. Their revised table (from a 1996 book chapter) looks like this:”

property roles and bundles of rights - Ostromspace




property-rights bundle - big

The Bundle of Property Rights — Click to enlarge (


Estates—Rights in real property which are or may become, possessory

1. Freehold estates—exist for an indefinite period of time

a. Fee estates (a fee, an estate in fee, estate of inheritance)

(1) Fee simple absolute—the greatest degree of ownership.

(2) Fee simple defeasible—can be defeated by some condition subsequent

2. Less-than-freehold estates (a leasehold estate)—exists for a determinable period of time—a form of personal property.

a. Estate for years

b. Estate from period to period (e.g., month-to-month)

c. Estate at will

d. Estate at sufferance

[from  Real Estate Trainers, Inc..Legal Aspects of Real Estate]


Concurrent Estates (tenancy in common, joint tenancy, tenancy by the entirety)



Trust (private, charitable, beneficial, etc.)

Beneficial Interest

Community Land Trust

Public Conservation Area

Private Conservancy


Doctrine of Mortmain


Do collective property rights make sense? Insights from central Vietnam


We draw on empirical results from three case studies of property rights change across forest and fisheries ecosystems in central Vietnam to investigate the circumstances under which collective property rights may make sense. A generic property rights framework was used to examine the bundles of rights and associated rights holders in each case, and to assess these arrangements with regard to their contextual fit, legitimacy and enforceability. The cases illustrate the interactions between private and collective rights to lands and resources, and the trade-offs inherent with different mixes of rights.

1. Introduction

Responding to the challenges of rural poverty and environmental sustainability requires a flexible mix of individual and collective property rights. Resource-based activities shift, depending upon, among other things, household needs, local ecologies and market opportunities. For these reasons, conventional categorization or advocacy of private, collective or public rights rarely account for the complex realities found in particular places (Barry and Meinzen-Dick 2008; German and Keeler 2010). Many property rights arrangements tend to enclose specific areas or reduce some people’s access to specific goods. Overlapping but differentiated ‘bundles of rights’ (Schlager and Ostrom 1992) and hybrid property regimes can offer a more effective lens for understanding property rights complexity. In the context of a mixed public-private or collective rights situation, such bundles of rights may be related to access, withdrawal, management, exclusion and alienation of resources, or parts of a resource, through time and space (Barry and Meinzen-Dick 2008). Farmers or fishers may advocate for part of a bundle of rights (extraction, for example) with other rights residing with the collective or the state (management or alienation, as an example). Sensitivity to circumstance or context reveals that individual, collective and public property rights each have merits (Evans et al. 2010). The challenge for the resource manager, donor or policy-maker is to ‘read’ when and where different rights regimes may be appropriate to support poverty alleviation and sustainable rural livelihoods more generally.

Vietnam has moved from forms of collectivization and state ownership that began in the late 1950s to an ambitious ‘renovation’ program leading to individual land titling in the late 1980s (Do and Iyer 2008). The Doi Moi period (or ‘renovation’) aimed to transform a centralized, state-planned economic system into a more decentralized, market-oriented system whereby the private sector would become the main engine of growth1. One aspect of these reform policies was to devolve authority over production decisions to farmers and enterprises, and to establish property rights (for agricultural land and in some cases for individual households to manage forest areas) to encourage investment and provide a form of collateral for rural dwellers (Sunderlin et al. 2008). The majority of Vietnam’s 90 million people have access to small amounts of land (1–2 ha), particularly in rural, agriculture-focused areas (where 72% of the population lives) (HDR 2009). Policy reforms in the 2000s (e.g. changes to the 2003 Land Law and Fisheries Law) recognized the role for collective rights, once again, to manage forest areas and fishing grounds. However, in the context of increasing privatization of land and marketization of rural production, the contextual fit, legitimacy and enforceability of collective rights has been uncertain…

Insights from the cases highlight how the needs and aspirations of individuals and households do not easily conform to conventional property rights narratives (private vs. collective) or the implementation of policy prescriptions that emerge from these narratives. Results of the analysis contribute to common property theory by showing how local actors may choose to collectively manage and use natural resources (forest lands and aquatic resources in this case) as part of a broader strategy to obtain individual bundles of rights (which may include access, withdrawal, management, exclusion and alienation of resources, or parts of a resource) within the context of a collective rights policy framework.


Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems, by Elinor Ostrom (2009 Nobel Prize lecture slides)


Individual garden plots on soviet collective farms

The sovkhozy tended to emphasize larger scale production than the kolkhozy and had the ability to specialize in certain crops. The government tended to supply them with better machinery and fertilizers. Labor productivity (and in turn incomes) tended to be greater on the sovkhozy. Workers in state farms received wages and social benefits, whereas those on the collective farms tended to receive a portion of the net income of their farm, based, in part, on the success of the harvest and their individual contribution.

Although accounting for a small share of cultivated area, private plots produced a substantial share of the country’s meat, milk, eggs, and vegetables.[citation needed]Although never more than 4% of the arable land in the USSR, private plots consistently produced roughly a quarter to a third of agricultural produce. Private plots were among many attempts made to restructure Soviet farming.[citation needed] However, the weak worker incentives and managerial autonomy, which were the crux of the problem, were not addressed.[citation needed]

The private plots were also an important source of income for rural households. In 1977, families of kolkhoz members obtained 72% of their meat, 76% of their eggs and most of their potatoes and eggs from private holdings. Surplus products, as well as surplus livestock, were sold to kolkhozy and sovkhozy and also to state consumer cooperatives. Statistics may actually under-represent the total contribution of private plots to Soviet agriculture.[4] The only time when private plots were completely banned was during collectivization, when famine took millions of lives.[5]

Soviets Pushing Food Production On Small Individual Plots…

Soviet law allows country and city dwellers alike to farm as much as one half a plots,— and the yield per acre far outstrips that of state and collective farms.


Party, State, and Citizen in the Soviet Union: A Collection of … – Page 258 – Google Books Result

The collective farm member’s personal household plot 57. use of a plot of land adjacent to their house as a vegetable garden, orchard, or to meet other needs.

Under the Collective Farm Charter (1935), individual farmers were permitted to keep small garden plots and a few animals for domestic use, and to sell surplus production in local free markets.


See R. W. Davies, The Soviet Collective Farm (1980); W. Hinton, The Great Reversal (1989); A. Etzioni et al., ed., The Organizational Structure of the Kibbutz (1980).


owners lavished more care and effort on their own crops than on collective or state fields. Comparative Economic Systems: Transition and capitalism alternatives – Page 96 – Google Books Result

Self-Sustainability of Subsidiary Household Plots: Lessons for

region actually was a combination of collective, state, and individual farming. Subsidiary household plots (lichnyye podsobnyye khozyaystva in Russian) culti ….. hectare, while the average yields in Russia are 18-20 centners per hectare. ….. Durgin, F., “Household Garden Plots,” RSEEA Newsletter, 13, 3, September 1991
The Meaning of Property “Rights:” Law vs. Economics?“Given the importance of property “rights” in economics, it might be expected that there would be some consensus in economic theory about what property “rights” are. But no such consensus appears to exist. In fact, property “rights” are defined variously and inconsistently in the economics literature.”

Analysis: Cuba’s derechos de superficie: Are they ‘real’ property rights?

A derecho de superficie is a derecho real over land that does not belong to its holder (the superficiario), but that the owner of the land in question concedes while retaining the title (dominio, or ownership) to the land itself. The superficiario is thus allowed to build and/or plant on the land while the laws acknowledge his own rights over the buildings or structures and plantations so emplaced as independent from the title holder or land-owner’s rights. Superficie rights are usually only temporary in nature. Once the superficie rights expire, when the term stipulated in its title (the grant or concession creating it) runs its course, or when it is otherwise extinguished, a reversion takes place and the owner of the land takes title to the buildings or improvements made on his land by the superficiario.

Over the past few years, the derecho de superficie has been enjoying a comeback in a number of countries — in Spain, in Argentina, even in China. And the Cuban Civil Code’s provisions on this topic are often cited as an example by those who urge their countries’ legislatures to make superficie rights part of their laws.

One of the reasons behind this resurge is intrinsically tied to societal models that, even if presently evolving (some faster than others), seek to keep the direct ownership of land in the hands of the state, such as Cuba.


Pensacola Beach is actually located on a barrier island in Escambia County, connected to the mainland Pensacola and Gulf Breeze by the Bob Sykes bridge. The land belongs to the Federal Government by virtue of a 1947 deed which leases it to the businesses and residents in 99 year increments, making them long-term leaseholders through the Santa Rosa Island Authority, instead of property owners.

Santa Rosa Island Authority

Pensacola Beach, is owned by Escambia County, Florida, and is under the direction of the Santa Rosa Island Authority (SRIA). The SRIA was created by the Florida legislature in 1947 under Chapter 24500. The SRIA does not receive tax support from the taxpayers of the county. It is fully funded from rental fees collected from business and residences on the beach.

The Authority is made up of six members, five are named by members of the Escambia County Board of County Commissioner and whose term is the same as the commissioner who appointed them. The sixth member is elected by the registered voters on Pensacola Beach. The sixth members’ term is two years.

Because of restrictions placed in the legal document from the United States government, land may not be purchased on Pensacola Beach; instead property is rented by the Island Authority for varying periods of time.

Pensacola Beach is about 1,474 acres, which make up approximately 30% of Escambia County on Santa Rosa Island. Pensacola Beach is about eight miles long and a quarter mile at its widest. At the present time 60% of Pensacola Beach is public use or public service land with the remaining 40% rented for residential and commercial use.


Open access vs. the commons

When Hardin (1968, p. 1244) asked his readers to “[p]icture a pasture open to all,” he was referencing an ungoverned open-access regime from which nobody could be excluded. Yet by calling the resulting collective action problem “the tragedy of the commons,” the notion of common property became conflated with the lawless (or law-free) condition of open access. The distinction between open-access and common property was made decades ago by Ciriacy-Wantrup and Bishop (1975) and has been reiterated by Ostrom (e.g. 1999, pp. 335–336; see also Schlager and Ostrom 1992) and others (e.g. McCay 1996, p. 113; Dagan and Heller 2001, pp. 556–557; Eggertsson 2003, pp. 75–76). Yet confusion on this point has yet to be fully eradicated. Recognizing that nearly all “private” property is actually owned (or at least used) by groups, such as households or firms, offers one way around this blind spot. These everyday examples of non-tragic commons lead us to ask not whether common property is feasible at all, but rather under what circumstances and at what scale.


Lee Anne FennellUniversity of Chicago Law School,

Elinor Ostrom’s work has immeasurably enhanced legal scholars’ understanding of property. Although the richness of these contributions cannot be distilled into a single thesis, their flavor can be captured in a maxim I call Ostrom’s Law: A resource arrangement that works in practice can work in theory. Ostrom’s scholarship challenges the conventional wisdom by examining how people interact over resources on the ground – an approach that enables her to identify recurring institutional features associated with long-term success. In this essay, I trace some of the ways that Ostrom’s focus on situated examples has advanced interdisciplinary dialogue about property as a legal institution and as a human invention for solving practical problems. I begin by highlighting the attention to detail that characterizes Ostrom’s methodology. I then examine how Ostrom’s scholarship yields insights for, and employs insights from, property theory. Next, I consider the question of scale, an important focal point of Ostrom’s work, and one that carries profound implications for law. I conclude with some observations about interdisciplinarity as it relates to research on the commons.


anticommons; commons; interdisciplinarity; models; scale; semicommons


Cargo cults became global in the wake of mass media. Now its called consumerism. Many of the non-essential material goods are important mainly for their symbolism.

A frequent conversation in the commons movement is exchange value vs use value, with some parallels in debates about property ownership vs use rights. Its six of one and half a dozen of the other to me. Although accounting methods (manipulating symbola) are seldom neutral, I think the more fundamental issues are things like well-being, sustainability, subsidiarity, and externalities. Maybe those are pragmata. PR

Inquiry Into Inquiry

Re: Profit as Proxy for Value

There is a deep and pervasive analogy between systems of commerce and systems of communication, turning on their near-universal use of symbola (images, media, proxies, signs, symbols, tokens, etc.) to stand for pragmata (objects, objectives, the things we really care about — or would really care about if we examined our values in practice thoroughly enough).

Both types of sign-using systems are prey to the same sort of dysfunction or functional disease — it sets in when their users confuse signs with objects so badly that signs become ends instead of means.

There is a vast literature on this topic, once you think to go looking for it. And it’s a perennial theme in fable and fiction.

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Primer on the Collaborative Economy

A Lucid New Primer on the Collaborative Economy | David Bollier.

“For anyone scratching their head about how to understand the deeper social and economic dynamics of online networks, a terrific new report has been released by Michel Bauwens called Synthetic Overview of the Collaborative Economy.  Michel, who directs the Foundation for Peer to Peer Alternatives and works with me at the Commons Strategies Group, is a leading thinker and curator of developments in the emerging P2P economy. “

Read more…

WTF is the Hex Model?

Exegesis on Poor Richards’s Hex Model

Systems thinking about the society

Systems thinking about the society (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the “Ownership of the Commons” and a few previous comments in the P2P Group on Facebook I introduced the “Hex Model” framework:

people-places-things — relations-rules-results

The hex model was inspired by an essay by Helene Finidori, Systems Thinking and ‘Commons-Sense’ for a Sustainable World . There are probably other things like it out there, because it is practically a self-evident concept. It applies retroactively to everything I’ve written and read in the past few years on the commons, property, ecological economics, and similar topics. I would like to continue developing this concept through dialog here or in the P2P group.

Basically the hex model applies to all topics that consider relations between people in which any kind of resource is important. If something pertains to people and to resources at the same time, the hex model applies.

The hex model is an analytical tool that is intended to help draw out and organize the key particulars of any resource use case. Widespread use of such a model might potentially standardize the way we collect and organize data across many research projects and fields of study. It also provides a semantic sub-ontology that could be added to many existing ontologies (e.g. classification systems, taxonomies, schema, vocabularies, folksonomies, etc.) for thinking about and discussing the interactions of people, places, and things.

A six-pointed star formed by extending each of the sides of a regular hexagon into equilateral triangles.

The first triangle of the hex model hexagram are “objects”: people-places-things. These are variables that can be given concrete values taken from in vivo and in situ cases.

The second triangle combines two sets of algorithms and a set of results. The relations-rules-results are also taken from the same specific cases as the people-places-things.

Taken together, these elements and their arrangement may be used to model actual cases of socioeconomic activity. These elements can be arranged  like an equation in which the object variables are represented along with some arrangement of relations and rules. Any of the elements might appear on either side of the equation, but the expression on the left of the ” = ” would generally be the “inputs” and the expression on the right of the ” = ” would typically be the “output” or results.

I am trying to develop a common, generic scaffolding for organizing key particulars and metrics for the analysis of human-resource relations that will work across a variety of ontologies or idioms. Possession, access, ownership, authority, governance, control, and management might be thought of as similar things expressed in different idioms or seen from different perspectives. Control of property or resources (and commensurate responsibilities), is often distributed across various levels from state to community to group to individual. In most cases we find some degree of subsidiarity in these relations. But without appropriate and consistent models and data structures it can be difficult to compare, contrast, or quantify these things in any rigorous way, especially across different researchers, writers, activists, and domains.

In this particular formulation, as first framed, I did not see the hex model as prescriptive of practice except for analytical and rhetorical practice. The original aim was to capture particularities in commoning practice or any other in vivo and in situ socioeconomic practice and then analyze, contrast, compare, and discuss these particularities in a more rigorous way than is usually found in colloquial discourse and perhaps in some academic discourse. At  least we can aim at some terminology that might remain relatively coherent across multiple communities of interest.

But this just in…

Helene Finidori has suggested some adaptations of the hex model that might make it more applicable to “‘seeding’ or ‘domesticating’ emerging change,” or in other words to commoning practice rather than simply to analysis and rhetoric. Her suggestion consists of renaming and rearranging  the elements of the hex model as follows:

Feedback loop

Feedback loop (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

People-Domain (environment)-Interactions: This would form the first triangle and would “cater for virtual operations (think specification of boundaries of the commons or the system)”. (HF) Helen argues that “this is the relational context in which the emergent behavior arises, that can be ‘seeded’.”

Things (objects/assets)-Rules(culture)-Results: This forms the second triangle of elements that “make up the commons (as I described them), as outputs that can be measured, what is ‘produced’ by the emergent behavior of the system and become inputs as medium for interaction in the relational context in a feedback loop.” (HF)

I admit to some reluctance to abandon the “people, places, and things” triad precisely because it is a preexisting, familiar meme; but Helene’s suggestions have compelling force. I especially like the feedback loop or spiral perspective in which inputs become outputs and then feed back as new inputs.

At least it remains a HEX model, thank goodness, as I was quite attached to that. 🙂

But no worries for Poor Richard. Michael Maranda pulls all my old chestnuts (and perhaps some future ones) out of the fire with this compact gem:

“Interesting to consider the original triad groupings and the [Finidori] alternate that resulted from the discussion. As triads go, we don’t lose anything, because taking one triad or a different combination will be a matter of what facets are relevant for a given approach or in making particular points.” ~Michael Maranda

Nice save.

The hex model is really just a little high-level template for data. We have established that it can be permutated and instantiated in different ways to suit various ontologies or purposes. Of course when you actually get down to particulars at a level of granularity (a unit of land with various appurtenances, or an adequate functional description of a person, for example) many additional sub-categories and data structures would be required and many additional standards and specifications would be needed.

And now this is thrown open to the nascent commons community, to its critics, and even to the maddening crowd for comments, questions, and collaboration–a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Poor Richard

A view of the Hex Model in DebateGraph

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Also Related

Resources, events, agents (REA) is a model of how an accounting system can be re-engineered for the computer age. REA is an ontology. The real objects included in the REA model are:

  • goods, services or money, i.e., resources
  • business transactions or agreements that affect resources, i.e., events
  • people or other human agencies (other companies, etc.), i.e., agents

Science of the Commons?

English: ARDX - Arduino Experimentation Kit (I...

ARDX – Arduino Experimentation Kit (Inside the box) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We progressives and activists often do a better job at describing problems than crafting solutions. The best way to get at solutions is a rigorous program of empirical experimentation. The contemporary dialog on the commons gives us some hypotheses to work with (although they are mostly old fare), but that’s about as far as it goes. Even when people act together and implement various ideas (collectives, coops, ecovillages, etc), a decade or two later that group or project may be gone, leaving very little for us to analyze as to the reasons for its failure. Or it may still be going strong but we may have little real understanding of why.

Does it replicate?

Throwing down the gauntlet

Throwing spaghetti at the wall is an experiment, but what we need are longitudinal studies and comprehensive programs of progressive, coherent, controlled experimentation.

I also suggest the discourse on the commons should center on in vivo and in situ cases rather than on theories or principles. When we look at cases we see things we like and dislike, even if we may not know why. Theories and principles can help us explain what we like and don’t like, but seldom help us recognize it. The problem with reinventing the wheel ex nihilo is that you might end up with a better wheel or a worse one. A better approach is to start with a sample of existing wheels and try to understand the advantages and flaws of each.

If the current commons movement really represents something new, it should philosophize less and say more about how it is going to create a scientific framework for its program.

Information Technology

One step in that direction involves information technology. I am imagining an information system of commons practice and research. The P2P collaborative economy, free culture, and new commons movements are creating a lot of digital content. Most is in discursive and narrative form that is time consuming to read. Among this volume of content are case studies in a variety of formats (many very informal), business plans, proposals, and presumably many legal documents (charters, agreements, etc.).

I am imagining a semantic ontology according to which the key ideas and data of this content could be parsed and tagged to form a distributed database using open linked-data structures. This would help transition the collective knowledge base of the research, activist, and social entrepreneur communities into a machine-readable, semantically linked, searchable form.

Much of the digital content of interest is already in “wiki” form. The P2P Foundation Wiki is an excellent searchable resource, and perhaps the semantic wiki extensions for the wiki engine could eventually be applied. “A semantic wiki is a wiki that has an underlying model of the knowledge described in its pages. Regular, or syntactic, wikis have structured text and untyped hyperlinks. Semantic wikis, on the other hand, provide the ability to capture or identify information about the data within pages, and the relationships between pages, in ways that can be queried or exported like a database.” (Wikipedia/Semantic_wiki)

A fringe benefit of creating such data structures for existing content would be to provide common templates for future content creation and data collection.

Moving Forward

The “old ways” often had utility, but as a result of eons of trial and error which seldom had much more than temporal correlation with the prevailing philosophies, ideologies, myths, and intellectual fashions of the times. “Creating those attractors authentic to a population’s readiness” (Bruce Kunkle) is a good idea as well as a well-turned phrase. So I don’t mean to dismiss the importance of rhetoric and public relations, but if we are to have something truly worthy of communicating we need for the science and engineering (R&D) to keep pace with the philosophy and rhetoric.

A new science of the commons needs to go beyond the old narratives of economics, sociology, and even traditional ecology. I highly recommend the following topics:

We don’t have eons to muck around any more. I say this respectfully as a commoner, communitarian, conservationist, and all-around activist who has been mucking around for decades.

Poor Richard

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Ownership of the Commons

English: A map showing community property stat...

A map showing community property states in red. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What is the difference between the commons, community property, and public or private property?

IMO at that level of generality those are almost useless distinctions. Within any community there exist a variety of distinct  people-places-things-relations-rules-results hextets. This is true even in the most extreme cases of “all things held in common”. My version of the tragedy of the commons is when the philosophy or ideology of a group does not accurately describe the reality of its practice. Then the philosophy or ideology can become an obfuscating factor, and the rules of actual behavior may be buried or forced into invisibility, with human nature acting as an invisible hand, often with unintended results. I’ve seen this personally in communes and collectives in which I gave participated.

For example, imagine a highly idealistic commune. All property is supposed to be held entirely in common. There is not supposed to be any private property or any boss. But adults still tell children what to do or take certain things away from them– it is a necessity of physical reality. The same is true for a member who has dementia. These are obvious exceptions to the rule of equal sharing, but between the child, the adult, and the senior with dementia are many tiny degrees of variation. In fact, no two people are exactly the same, and the actual relations between people and property vary by degrees. Things also vary by degree. I share the hammer but not the pocket knife I sharpen a special way. I share my coat but not my toothbrush. Similar aspects of exclusivity apply to things like chainsaws, guns, medical instruments, etc.

Ownership is very relative. It is a bundle of many rights or powers along with a bundle of responsibilities, and each is relative as to its strength, weakness, etc. So ownership can be attenuated down nearly to nothing and still be a form of ownership. At one level if you see it you own it, at least compared with the guy who never laid eyes on it. OK, it may not be a kind of ownership that fits our customary default categories, but those are artifices. I’m speaking of ownership in a more general way as any form of control or even potential control (sort of like potential energy) and the commensurate duties and responsibilities that go with that. Also, practically every living thing, including bacteria, owns stuff, in the sense of controlling stuff or excluding others. Can you think of a place or thing to which that doesn’t apply? If not, then if people tried to create a category of things that were unowned it would be a kind of fiction. Fictions can be powerful, but I’m much more a non-fiction guy. So, instead of searching for something in the world that is literally unowned, a better aim for me is to define the kind(s) of ownership I like or dislike.

Every hextet of people-places-things-relations-rules-results is sufficiently unique for it to merit some individual attention. Making categorical assumptions is an important timesaver, but we gloss over particulars at a cost. Speaking of hammers, for example, one community where I lived separated claw hammers into three categories by appropriate users: novice, experienced, and expert. Tools with cutting edges are also a good example. An expert not only knows how to use an adze, draw-knife, or chisel well, she knows how to sharpen it in the best way. But some users even break hammers. Thus user-place-tool-work-maintenance-results is a system that is only as good as its weakest link.

No trespassing. Keep out. Private property. Su...

“The word “redistribution” implies that there is a distribution that is default, and that we redistribute when we modify thedistribution away from it. This, of course, is wrong. There is no default distribution. All distributions are the consequence of any number of institutional design choices, none of which are commanded by the fabric of the universe. In the United States, we have constructed and enforce institutions of private property ownership and contract enforcement. Those institutions generate very different end distributions than we would see if they did not exist. But they do not have to exist by logical necessity, nor do they constitute the default form of economic institutions.” (Matt Bruenig, “There is no such thing as redistribution“)

The people-places-things-relations-rules-results hextet is unique for every actual instance, no matter what the big philosophy or mythology of the community may be. Does that mean that generalizations such as the commons or a community property philosophy are meaningless? No, generalizations and abstractions have their utility. But they also have their limitations, typically in oversimplification and lumping dissimilars together. No two commons are the same, and no two people or things within a single commons are the same. I’m not just referring to the tautology that nothing and nobody is physically equal in the physical world. Human equality is generally understood to mean civic/legal/moral equality, not equality in form or function. We are all physiologically, psychologically, and behaviorally different, and shared ideals and narratives often mask those differences, even from ourselves.

Commons ≠ commons, people ≠ people, and private ≠ private, so it is almost meaningless to say that common property ≠ private property.  Similarly, because of the variation within types, capitalism ≠ capitalism and socialism ≠ socialism, so it is almost meaningless to say that capitalism ≠ socialism. In fact, in certain specific cases of capitalism and socialism, capitalism = socialism!

English: Eastatoe Falls, North Carolina. On PR...

Eastatoe Falls, NC. On PRIVATE PROPERTY. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a large enough sample, men are taller than women. But no one is surprised when a particular woman is taller than a particular man. Similarly, a particular item of private property might be shared or conserved better than a particular item of public property.

Another way in which property and ownership are relative is this: property may be shared in common among group A, but not shared with group B. If group A were flower children and group B were corpoRats, I’d be the first to cheer for such an enclosure.

Private and public are relative. Sharing and exclusion (or enclosure) are relative. Commons is relative. Community is relative.

The generalizations of private, public, community, and commons have utility for certain purposes, but that utility is relative. Public and private is not the same as apples and oranges. One person’s apple is not another person’s orange. Oranges and apples don’t vary by degrees over a spectrum. There is no point on the spectrum of apple variety that it is an orange or a banana. Not so with ownership and property. All forms of ownership and property lie on a common spectrum, so that from one perspective a thing may appear private and from the other side of the spectrum that same thing may appear public. Similarly, from the inside a community may appear enlightened and egalitarian, and from outside it may look like a bunch of airheads or elitist assholes.

“Often…property is juxtaposed to commons – as if commoning was a negation of property. Unfortunately, this view presupposes and consolidates a very narrow understanding of property, where the general is conflated with the particular. Property relations are not only exclusive, private property rights as instantiated within capitalist democracy (that is, a particular conception of property). As a jurisprudential concept, property can be used to understand, analyse, reflect upon and organise social relations with regard to things in any context (this is the general conception of property). The conflation of the general with the particular, which conceals the historical and anthropological fact that property can be and is understood (very) differently, takes on a further dimension in colloquial talk.” (J.M. Pederson, Commoning)

Analysis has levels. Too often we compare and contrast things at one level while some particulars at another level may be just the opposite. I’m not just saying that exceptions prove the rule. There’s more to it than that. At the level of particular instances, capitalism can equal socialism. So if we only contrast capitalism and socialism at the general level, we get no closer to the particulars where actual social engineering is possible. We need to continually oscillate between generalities, which provide ontological categories and hypotheses, and particular in vivo and in situ cases that provide empirical data.

Poor Richard

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