Assurance Commons

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David Ronfeldt:

"People living together in a society come to require all sorts of assurances. Maybe it all began in early tribal societies that imposed assurances about family unity, neighborly respect, mutual sharing, and territorial security. But begin it does. And as societies become more complex, the need for assurances grows and grows — for evermore varied kinds of assurances, all evermore embedded in laws, codes, regulations, and standards. These assurances may even become defining aspects of a society’s heritage and culture — it’s national fabric. And eventually, lately in particular, the advanced societies come to depend on having an “assurance commons” — that’s what I propose to call it. And I’d say that, once noticed, this assurance commons can be seen to have great significance, and it’s going to increase in the future. Furthermore, maybe it’s time to propose creating a U.S. Chamber of Commons, somewhat modeled after the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, but for quite different purposes.


The concept of “the commons” is on the rise these days, making quite a comeback from ages gone by, and promising to transform the advanced societies anew in the decades ahead. It’s proponents are eager to see the commons grow as a major sector alongside the established state and market (i.e., public and private) sectors. But, as I’ve noted in prior posts, it is still far from clear what the concept means — just exactly what it is, what belongs in it, and how and why to develop it.

The term “the commons” has long referred to resources (things? stuff? matters?) held and used “in common” — resources that all share and exploit together, to which anyone involved may have access, and for which all are (or should be) responsible stewards. Standard ways of categorizing commons typically start with natural or physical commons, such as the airs we breathe and waters we drink out in the open. To these may be added fields, forests, fisheries, and routes that are openly accessible and have not come under private control — as was often the case long ago.

Today, as a result of the digital information revolution, proponents of the concept see a vast immaterial commons taking shape as well. They point to the Internet and World Wide Web, and talk of a knowledge commons, a software commons, etc. Indeed, it is the emergence of this immaterial commons — plus the desire to keep expanding, exploiting, and managing it in shared ways, and to defend it from being enclosed or commodified by private or public powers — that has given brand new impetus to the concept of the commons, more than anything else occurring in regard to the material commons.

Beyond those basic points, a lot else may be added, depending on who is doing the theorizing. For proponents on the Left — the ones who are doing most of the theorizing — the concept is about new modes of “value creation” and “social production”, all for the sake of creating a commons-oriented economy, a commons-oriented state, and ultimately a commons-based society. And while much of this is about resources, their use and governance, it’s also about “commoning” as a new kind of activity, a way of doing and living that deserves to attract converts who want to practice “commonism” and thereby transform society.

In addition, the categories of resources and practices that could or should be part of the new commons becomes ever larger, to include not only the material and immaterial parts noted above, but also other, more specific areas and activities: e.g., health, education, welfare, banking, communications, industrial fabrication, tool libraries, etc. Distinctions are even made between possible capitalist and non-capitalist commons. And of course, Occupy Wall Street’s takeover of Zucotti Park led to claims that this public park — not to mention other parks and public spaces — under private management really belong to/in the people’s commons. Quite an ambitious agenda.


voices on the Right are usually dismissive. They typically rely on extolling Garrett Hardin’s classic article “The Tragedy of the Commons” (1968) — not realizing and/or not reporting that he later said that he should have titled it “The Tragedy of the Unmanaged Commons” (source, p. xvii). Such voices on the Right also neglect favorable analyses, now epitomized by Elinor Ostrom’s book Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (1990).

What strikes me from a TIMN perspective is that, while there may well be tragedies of the commons, especially under unmanaged conditions, there can also be tragic failures for improperly managed tribes/families, institutions/states, and markets — i.e., for all the TIMN forms. Indeed, many of the advanced world’s economies are suffering today from failures wrought by statist and capitalist misbehaviors. The commons do not have a monopoly on the prospects for tragedies. Surely there are voices on the Right and in the Center who are ready to reconsider the values of the commons!?

My speculation about there being an “assurance commons” is largely in line but partly at odds with the preceding. While my term doesn’t sound right to me, I’ve been unable to come up with a better one for what I think I’m after: a term, really a criterion, for clarifying what may and may not belong in the commons, particularly if societies evolve as TIMN forecasts. Plus, I have my own angles for coming up with this particular term and wanting to try it out:

First, as may be seen in several prior posts (e.g., here), I’ve started to wonder about the concept of the commons. In particular, whether it’s still mostly about resources, as in the past, or whether it’s increasingly about something else. And I’m inclined toward the latter, though specifying it remains a puzzlement.

Second, I’ve also wondered lately about “insurance” — its various types (e.g., auto, fire, health), the extent to which it may be a private, public, or mixed public-private good (or service), and whether in some instances it may be viewed as part of a commons. And if the latter, how and why?

Finally, I recalled the term “information assurance”. Indeed, I first heard “assurance” used in connection with “information assurance” — a field concerned with information security. In brief, information assurance (IA) is about “strategic risk management”: “the IA practitioner does not seek to eliminate all risks, were that possible, but to manage them in the most cost-effective way.” While I’ve never liked the term, it has endured, and now I mean to borrow from it. Indeed, its emphasis on strategic risk management seems useful for this post. (Also interesting, but less resonant, is “quality assurance”.)

By “assurance commons” I mean to tap into a notion that, as societies progress, becoming more complex, the prospects for the commons become less about resources and more about practices — specifically, about the deeper purposes and functions that citizens want assured in, for, and by their society. Accordingly, the commons consists of resources and practices, available to all involved, that become required by the public (civil society) and thus mandated by the state and accepted by business. These would be grand assurances — ones that provide for basic needs, by making people’s lives more safe and secure, thus enabling them to live and work together not only as individuals but also on society’s behalf. Many such assurances may correspond to what used to be called public interests and public goods.

Looking ahead, then, I’d try asking not so much what comprises the commons from a resource perspective. That’s old school. Let’s try asking instead what comprises the commons from an assurance perspective. That’d be new school, more in keeping with how much societies have advanced, and how far they’ve yet to go.

For me, thinking in terms of an assurance criterion leads to supposing that people at large in advanced societies seek to include the following: Assurances not only of fresh air and water, but also that food, medicine, and other products are made safe, free of dangers. Assurances that basic health, education, and welfare services are provided in equitable ways. Assurances that one’s vote counts. Assurances, in America, that the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and law more generally, not to mention many codes and regulations, are upheld and apply to all people (including corporations in their capacity as “persons”). Assurances of access to . . . well, I’m not sure how much to keep adding to this listing. Hopefully you get my point. I’m not trying to come up with a comprehensive list, just a preliminary indicative exploration.

As I wonder about what else might be listed, it seems even clearer that the commons is no longer so much about resources. It is indeed increasingly about practices — including policies — that assure rights and responsibilities, as well as accountability; practices that assure open and abundant access and usage; practices that assure universal services and public utilities, broadly defined; practices that require strategic risk management and quality assurance for the benefit of people at large; practices that make a society more robust and resilient, on everyone’s behalf.

There appears to be a preference among forward-looking proponents on the Left that the commons be managed by commoners who organize into peer networks and cluster into a commons sector, without much if any involvement by established public or private sector actors. Building the commons is viewed as a way to break with standard dialogue about states versus markets — moreover, as a way to work outside the system, partly on grounds that working inside would reinforce the “state/market duopoly”.

From a TIMN perspective, I see some but only limited prospects for that view. Instead, I’d surmise that an assurance-commons approach in a complex society means that all sectors must be involved: state, market, civil society. Taking an assurance-commons approach would surely help propel the rise of a new commons sector, but many matters permeate into all sectors. They would have to be involved and re-oriented as well (as the best versions of P2P theory also maintain).

Thus, assurance commons may require a strong state, big or small. But an assurance state would not be simply a welfare state, nor an entitlement state, nor a regulatory state. It may be partly all those things, but it would also be more, and less, and different, depending. My notion is to include welfare programs in the assurance commons — e.g., Social Security and Medicare (or their successors) — since people have required assurances in those regards. But assurance commons are not just about welfare; they are much broader. They may require the kind of state posed in past posts at this blog: TIMN’s nexus state, P2P’s partner state, and/or Red Toryism’s civic state.

Assurance commons may well require a strong market system. It’s almost a precondition: Business enterprises generate deleterious externalities — e.g., air and water pollution — that lead to public demands for environmental assurances (e.g., regulations). At the same time, advanced economies require healthy educated workforces — another matter that generates demands for assurances. Furthermore, assurance commons as a whole tend to be expensive; a thriving innovative market system — a positive type of capitalism — is needed in order to generate the incomes and taxes that can help pay for assurance commons.

Assurance commons also require a vital civil society. After all, it’s the main source of demands for assurances, far more than state or market actors. Furthermore, civil-society actors seem likely to play increasingly significant monitory roles in the future, to see that assurances are maintained and jeopardizers held accountable. Indeed, assurance commons would benefit from the spread of monitory democracy enabled by a sensor commons, topics I’ve discussed in prior posts.

Another point: Assurance commons will surely have different characteristics at different levels of society. A nation may define for itself a national society-wide commons to some extent. Yet, there may also be somewhat different commons created at state and community levels (e.g., via building codes).

Of course, not every assurance that people seek would or should pertain to an assurance commons. For example, just about everybody wants their home to be safe and secure from intruders; but that does not mean that home alarm systems comprise an assurance commons. The concept entails a definitional-boundaries problem that would have to be clarified if it is to be developed. My start here is insufficient for defining exactly when an assurance pertains to a commons, though I tried to suggest some criteria above."[1]

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