Public Goods vs Common Goods

From P2P Foundation
Jump to navigation Jump to search


James Quilligan:

"The simplest way of contrasting a public and common good is to ask: does this particular resource require management as a social mandate or as an expression of mutuality and collaboration? In other words, is this property best maintained by government or the public? This is a useful starting place, yet it raises further questions. What exactly do we mean by ‘public’ and public goods? Postwar economists such as Paul Samuelson identified the non-rivalrous qualities of public goods and James M. Buchanan and Vincent Ostrom described their non-excludable aspects.

The biophysical needs, communicative capacities and shared standards of people who use and depend on vital resources (like food, water, air, knowledge, community networks and social technologies) are not expressed through government-stimulated spending and consumption. In essence, state provision of public goods fails to account for the higher total net benefit that consumers would receive through the self-organized and socially negotiated protection, production and use of their own resources.

Since the 1980s, the state has concerned itself principally with increasing the rights of private property, free markets and free trade.1 This has shifted the meaning of ‘public’ even further away from common property. With the advent of neoliberalism, public sector now refers, not to citizens with shared meanings and norms for their mutual resources, but to the government that promises to improve their individual well-being through privatized goods disguised as public goods. In a mystifying sleight of hand, the resources we use in common are identified as public goods and then deregulated and turned over to the private sphere for production and distribution. As in the shell game of the magician, common goods disappear through the adept switching of categories: forget where you saw it before, which legal container now holds the good? Examples of this commons/public/private rebranding include water, food, forests, energy, health services, schools, culture, indigenous artifacts, parks, community zoning, knowledge, means of communication, currency, and ecological and genetic resources. To call such goods ‘public’ (by qualifying them as non-rivalrous and non-excludable) is to carry the Keynesian denial of common goods even deeper into the fog of social unreality now clouding our eyes: the neoliberal game in which all goods ultimately become private goods. Not only does the commons vanish through this legal and linguistic shuffle, even the word ‘public’ is stolen from the people. Public no longer signifies the communities who manage their local resources and express social or ecological demand for them; public now means the central governing authority to whom we have surrendered the control of these resources.

To call government the ‘public sector’ is to relinquish our epistemological frame of reference, countervailing authority and collective potential for governing and valuing our own resources. In theory, public still means people; in practice, public means government decoupled from the people’s social/ecological rights to their common goods.


The use of ‘for the common good’ as a synonym for state interests thus creates a conflict for commoners, who would like to define common goods as things that benefit everyone. The compromised meaning of this phrase not only makes the commons vulnerable to conceptual and legal ambiguity; it also reifies the power of the political class that is already defining its own governmental programs for the masses through private and public goods. ‘Common goods’ always refer to the collaborative preservation and production and collective rights of use by the people; ‘for the common good’ almost always entails public limitations or prohibitions on collective property by the state. So when commoners use these terms, they need to ask themselves: is the specific policy, institution or resource that is defined as ‘for the common good’ something with which everyone agrees, has equal access, shares the same burden of costs, and is life-enhancing for all? In other words, does the claim ‘for the common good’ benefit all people and species -- or is it simply a public good?


Many alternative communities have developed their own sets of norms and rules to oversee their collective resources sustainably. Whether these commons are traditional (rivers, forests, indigenous cultures) or emerging (solar energy, social innovation, internet), self-organizing communities take collective action to preserve their local resources, both for themselves and for future generations. These resource communities express the core principles of production and management that are idealized in neoliberalism -- spontaneous, self-regulating freedom (markets) and rule-based equality (state enforcement). Yet when consumers become co-producers of the goods and services they receive and organize, their mutual, integrative work transcends privatization, centralization and the idea that institutional change can come only from the top of a social hierarchy.

When the users of resources are directly involved in the process of production, their local ideas, learning, imagination, deliberation and self-corrective action are embodied directly in their collaborative activities. Unlike commercial delivery chains or the bureaucratic provision of public goods and services by the state, the cooperative production of value and governance by resource users preserves the autonomy of individual choice. The decentralized, self-governing systems of co-production1 also offer fairer access to resources (and thus higher efficiency) than can be gained through distributive enterprises operated as private monopolies or state hierarchies. Hence, common goods that are managed directly and locally are a realm of production and governance existing beyond the public good of the modern division of labor.


When people across a community of practice or region take on the responsibility to sustain their own resources, they may formalize this through a social charter. The charter outlines a group’s rights and incentives for a shared resource. It describes patterns of relationships between the resource and its users, managers and producers. Social charters have been developed for forests, pastures, irrigation systems, water, fisheries, internet, knowledge, genetic resources, public health, energy, landscapes, historic sites and other domains.

To make them operational, resource users and producers develop a legal entity called a commons trust. Trusts are generally created to preserve depletable resources (natural, material), but many replenishable commons (social, cultural, intellectual, digital, solar) can also benefit from trusts that ensure their regeneration. Trustees set a cap on the extraction or the use of a resource according to non-monetized, intergenerational metrics such as sustainability, quality of life and well-being. Having protected a commons safely for future generations, the trust may rent a proportion of the resources beyond the cap to the private sector or to state businesses and utilities for extraction and production. A percentage of this rent is taxed by the state and redistributed to citizens as dividends or subsistence income, with emphasis on the poor and marginalized.


What segment of society could best sponsor commons/common goods apart from private and public goods? In recent decades, civil society has increasingly identified itself as a ‘third sector’ beyond the market and state. By defining the interests and advocating for the rights of the unrepresented, global networks, nongovernmental organizations, citizens associations and social movements have become a genuine voice of global public opinion. Indeed, many of the interests they are pursuing -- food, water, clean air, environmental protection, green energy, free flow of information, social technologies, human rights and indigenous peoples’ rights -- are commons.

et these self-selected groups do not carry the authority of global representative democracy, since public opinion lacks the electoral legitimacy of people’s votes and thus does not increase their political equality. Without a credible political mandate, civil society often challenges the distribution of global power but rarely its underlying structure. In affirming and upholding the constitutional premises of neoliberalism (including the primacy of individual rights, private property and sovereign borders), most civil society organizations maintain a deep commitment to the division of labor between producers and consumers and thus to the enclosure of the commons. This leaves civil society co-dependent on business and government and vulnerable to exploitation. Rather than a true opposition party, civil society faces a huge challenge in establishing itself as a transformational alternative.

Here is where civil society can learn from commons groups the importance of involving resource users in the process of production. As noted earlier, the commons involve producers who consume their own goods. When resource users are also co-producers, their motivations, knowledge and skills become part of the production praxis, leading to new ways of interacting and coordinating social and economic life. Civil society must apply this principle in its own work.1 By operating both as resource users and as producers, bringing direct political power to local stakeholders, civil society groups can integrate the range of collective rights, legitimacy and power that exists beyond the state. Very quickly, through discovering their natural role in the global commons movement, the world’s civil society organizations would develop a more dynamic basis for collective action, social solidarity and direct democracy than presently exists.

As catalysts for the integration of producers and consumers, many civil society organizations will evolve into commons trusts or form partnerships with them. The increased participation and political choices offered to citizens by these trusts will transform economic, social and political decision-making at all levels of commons (local, state, interstate, regional, and global). This will resolve the present contradiction between the internationalist ideals of civil society groups for redistributing social and natural resources, and their institutional fears of overturning constitutional restrictions on the equitable access, protection and use of these commons. By fostering the collective production and governance of common goods through new forms of trusteeship (instead of private/public ownership), the unelected associations and self-appointed movements of civil society will no longer be unaccountable to the people they claim to help and protect.

Discriminating common goods from public goods is crucial in recognizing our essential rights to the commons as global citizens. Presently, people’s rights to global citizenship are not acknowledged or affirmed because citizen representation does not go beyond the state level. As national citizens, we empower governments through an implicit social contract, bestowing legitimacy and authority upon the state in return for the public goods of protection, security, infrastructure and other services. In surrendering our deeply personal, subjective power of decision-making to government (which redeploys this power to grant corporations the right to produce and dispense private goods), many people have lost their sense of identity and purpose.

Yet it’s human beings as a collective who are sovereign -- not their governments. The inalienable rights of peoples originate, not in authority over a territorial area, but through a customary or emerging identification with an ecology; a form of collective labor; a social technology; a community need or shared conviction; a cultural resource area; an ethnic, religious and linguistic affinity; or an historical identity. When groups of people recognize that the capacity of their commons to support life and development is in decline, they may claim long-term authority over resources, governance and social value as their planetary birthrights, both at a community and global level. These natural rights to every resource -- the atmosphere, oceans, forests and species; food, water, energy and health care; technology, media, trade and finance -- arise from a community’s dependence on a particular commons for survival and security and its obligations for the welfare of future generations. The human need for sustenance and livelihood vests these local groups with a new moral and social responsibility: to engage resource users directly in the preservation, access and production of their own commons, and extend these rights of resource sovereignty to the communities of practice that exist at all levels of production and management."


Draft of a to be published essay in a book on the Commons by the Heinrich Boll Foundation.

More Information