West Coast tour: re/ Thrive & ‘the commons’


Richard Moore

Bcc: FYI
rkm websitehttp://cyberjournal.org


Too much happened on the tour to cover it all in one report. Today I’d like to reflect on my conversation with Foster & Kimberly Gamble re/ Thrive, a conversation that has been continuing via email. They graciously invited Jim Fadiman and myself to their palatial home in Soquel for an all-day discussion, followed by a delicious homemade meal. They are very busy people, and I felt genuinely honored to have this time with them and with Jim.

I asked Foster to recommend a book that best expresses his philosophy, and he handed me a copy of Stefan Molyneux’s Everyday Anarchy, which I’ve since read. Foster and I are in strong agreement on these very central points, regarding ‘what is the problem’ and ‘what is the solution’:
     • Representative ‘democracy’ is a disguised form of tyranny and theft.
     • The major affairs of the world are controlled by secretive elites.
     • We should be working toward a voluntary-cooperative society.
     • Governments cannot be part of such a society.
     • People need to be engaged in visualizing that new society.

That’s a lot of agreement, and I don’t know of very many other people who would go along with all these points.  And yet, with all that agreement, there remains a schism between our perspectives. We might call it the ‘schism of the commons’. 

Foster subscribes to the ‘tragedy of the commons’ theory, which says that every commons must fail due to selfish exploitation by individual users. When it comes to the use of land and other resources, he believes private enterprise will always provide the best solution for society. He subscribes to the notion that the Robber Barons (JD Rockefeller, Carnegie, etc.) have been much maligned, and that their well-earned success was due to offering lower prices to consumers. He believes that any kind of taxation is theft, and that the only guiding principle we need in society is ‘do no harm’.

This comes down to a world view in which there is no role for the social collective, no concept of a will of the people, determining the direction of society. We are all producers and consumers, and free markets will provide us with a money system, with security, with efficient use of resources, etc. We can enter into voluntary alliances for one purpose or another, but there is no such thing as a voice of the society as a whole. 

In order to believe all these things, it seems to me one needs to ignore all of history, and all current events, as regards the behavior of unregulated free enterprise. One needs also to ignore the fact that concentrated economic power can be just as tyrannical and thieving as any government. Power is power, whether it comes through politics or money (if those two can be separated). And concentrated power has no place in a voluntary-cooperative society.

The Tragedy of the Commons argument is basically saying that a shared resource space, with no restrictions on what users can do with the resources, will result in over-exploitation of the space. I think this is essentially true, and we can see it in the decimation of fish populations by over-fishing on the high seas. Whatever restrictions there might be on fish harvesting, they have been insufficient to prevent over-exploitaiton by competing fishing fleets, and by nations competing for food resources. 

The high seas are an example of a commons that is being mismanaged. Here in Wexford we have an example of a more localized fishing commons, where the users know one another and live in the same community. There’s a local fleet of mussel trawlers, and they share the local harvesting areas on a voluntary-cooperative basis. They share a common interest in maintaining the viability of their industry, and they act on that basis.  

In her book, Governing the Commons, Elinor Ostrom documents several examples of similar commons, that are being managed effectively on a voluntary-cooperative basis.  The Tragedy argument assumes users will never voluntarily cooperate, and this simply isn’t true, as we can see when we look at how localized commons operate in the real world. 

What the Tragedy argument doesn’t acknowledge, is that people generally find ways to manage a commons, by reaching agreement among users, or else by the larger society establishing rules for commons management. The question isn’t whether or not a commons can be viable, rather the question is how a commons is managed, and who decides how it will be managed, or not managed.

There’s no escaping the existence of a commons. For example, Main Street in Wexford is a commons for shopkeepers and customers. The rules. if you want to be a shopkeeper, are that you can own or lease a shop, you can open a legal business in the shop, you must pay taxes for civic services, and you can compete for customers. Within those rules all activity of sellers and customers on the main street commons is voluntary, and we have a thriving (relative to economic conditions generally) town economy. The shopkeepers cooperate voluntarily in lobbying to maintain good civic services in support of Main Street commerce. 

More generally, our whole society, and how it operates, is a commons. The rules are the laws, and within that the rest is voluntary. The infrastructure of the commons includes lots of systems with their own rules – systems of economics, health care, law enforcement, roads, utilities, etc. In particular, there is a system for rule-making (legislative process), which is governed by rules (constitutions). 

Now I agree fully with Foster, and with Everyday Anarchy, in their critique of governments generally, and their critique of election-based so-called ‘democratic’ governments. The arguments presented in the book as to why governments end up stealing from the 99%, for the benefit of the politicians and their backers, make a lot of sense. I could add some more critiques of my own.

The lesson I take from these critiques is that governments are doing a bad job of managing the commons, and that governments are not a good solution to the problem of managing the commons. What this means, I suggest, is that we need to find a better way to manage the commons, a better way to make the rules that enable society to operate. And we can learn a lot from looking at real-world commons that are succeeding.

Throwing away governments and the rules that are in place, and opening up the world to the engines of free enterprise markets, is clearly not a solution to better managing the commons. Indeed, that’s more or less what we’ve got, in this post-globalization world where corporations are more powerful than governments. The truth about robber barons is that they are exploiters and power seekers.

The ‘do no harm’ principle doesn’t offer a solution, because it leaves open the question of who decides what is harmful or not, and how enforcement is carried out. Monsanto says GMOs are beneficial to humanity, and others say GMOs cause harm. Who decides? Who funds the decision process? How do we ensure the decision process is fair and objective? Who forces Monsanto to comply, if the decision goes against them? Who funds the enforcement? We are left with all the essential problems of governance, even after we all agree with the ‘do no harm’ principle

The problem of managing the commons well, and the problem of achieving a good system of governance, are the same problem. And yet very few people think at all about systems of governance, or see it as a central problem that needs a solution. I’ll have more to say about this when I report on other stops on the tour.

And very few agree with Foster and me, that we can’t make a better world without transforming the way society operates, that the existing political system can never provide a solution. More about this later as well.

Foster and I also agree that a better society needs to be based on voluntary cooperation. And we both agree that there are many questions to be answered about how such a society would operate. Indeed, the Thrive Project features a list of Big Qs – questions that Foster sees as being central to how such a society would operate. The Project also features a Solutions Hub portal, where people are encouraged to form and join groups to pursue answers to the Big Qs. 

Foster is inviting people to work together locally, envisioning how society could operate on a volunteer-cooperation basis, and to share their ideas with other groups. This is very much the same kind of thing I have in mind, with my Transformation Project proposal. The parallels between the initiatives are striking. Our understudying of ‘what is the problem’, and ‘what do we need to be doing about it’ are so very, very close– and yet our work remains decisively separated by the schism of the commons. 

The Big Qs, and the whole Thrive process, are framed in a way that encourages certain kinds of answers and certain ways of thinking about the problems. The Big Qs are seeking answers in terms of minimal rules, that could enable society to operate. In my terminology, its emphasis is on minimizing the management of the commons, rather than aiming for soundest management. 

The Big Qs emphasis on minimal rules is matched by their failure to deal with the question of ongoing decision-making re/ rules. What if the initial rules turn out to have problem? Who notices this, and who takes action to correct them? As with the ‘do no harm’ principle, the emphasis on minimal rules leaves unanswered the essential question of how governance would operate in a voluntary-collaborative society. There is a Solutions Hub section called Governance, and you can see for yourself how minimalist it is.

My suggestion to Foster, sent in an email not yet answered, is that the Big Qs could be reframed in a more open way, where the only underlying assumption is that we want to envision a voluntary-cooperative society. The role of free enterprise, the nature of money, the boundaries between commons and private property, how ongoing decisions can be made, all of these and more could be discussed in an open way. This could be one way to bridge the schism of the commons. 

I look forward to Foster’s reply, and I’m encouraged by the fact that he offered to read Managing the Commons



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