Updated: Jan 18, 2021
Jonathan Rowe’s book Our Common Wealth, released earlier this year, provides an excellent overview and defense of “the commons” -- the often invisible part of our economy that contains everything we share rather than owning individually.1 The commons includes both natural resources (e.g. water, wilderness, and air) as well as human-made inventions (e.g. the internet and culture). In this short yet powerful book, Rowe argues that the commons is incredibly valuable for our individual and social welfare and thus deserves protection from privatization and overuse. Unfortunately, Jonathan Rowe died before he could complete the book, but Peter Barnes did a great job of compiling and editing his writings.
In many ways, Rowe’s book responds to the “tragedy of the commons” debate that I wrote about earlier on the blog. Like political economist Elinor Ostrom, Rowe believed that the degradation of natural and social resources is not the inevitable consequence of rising population rates but rather a failure of social governance. With the right institutions and incentives for responsible use, the commons can thrive in perpetuity. However, both Ostrom and Rowe believed that the Western “free market” is not the appropriate institution for managing the commons. They recognized that the market is an efficient system for organizing commercial products, but it fails to provide adequate protection for common resources. Instead, protecting the commons will require new civic and political institutions.
Rowe’s main contribution to this debate, beyond his compelling argument about the value of the commons, is to propose private property as a method of protecting the commons. He believed that a particular kind of property could give the commons a legal “protective shell” against mismanagement by corporations and governments. Rowe pointed out that many kinds of property already exist, each with their own “bundle of rights”: shareholder rights, cooperative rights, property rights in a marriage, etc. Rowe proposed using the legal structure of non-profit trusts to protect the commons. This structure is already used to protect universities, forests, and community land, and trustees have a legal responsibility to manage the trust’s assets for future generations. Rowe explained how a similar legal structure could be used to manage public spaces, oceans, and even the air we breathe.
From the perspective of the Systems of Exchange framework, Rowe’s proposal combines interesting elements of each of the four systems. Privatization is a hallmark of the Price System, wherein private property is used to accumulate profits and is also assumed to encourage innovation and thus benefit society as well. However, Rowe’s proposal uses this Price-based tool for Associative, Moral, and Communal purposes. Protection for the commons is motivated by substantive values for public space and environmental protection (Moral-based values), as well as values for community, family, and future generations (Communal-based values). Furthermore, Rowe draws on an Associative logic when he recognizes that the non-profit trust would be mutually beneficial for trustees and beneficiaries (i.e. society at large) by ensuring the long-term viability of resources on which businesses depend.
Our Common Wealth provides a framework for understanding many seemingly disparate battles as a common mission to defend the commons. Rowe’s book is notable for demonstrating that despite the tensions between them, both the commons and the market are necessary for society to flourish. Indeed, the relationship between them is symbiotic. The market already benefits from a wide range of protections, and Rowe believed that the commons ought to receive similar treatment.
To read more about Rowe’s book Our Common Wealth, click here.
Rowe, Jonathan. (2013). Our Common Wealth: The Hidden Economy that Makes Everything Else Work. (ed. Peter Barnes.) Berrett-Koehler Publishers: San Francisco.
Biggart, Nicole Woolsey and Rick Delbridge. (2004). “Systems of Exchange.” Academy of Management Review 29(1): pp. 28-49.