There are more ways to look after public resources than nationalisation and privatisation
IT SOUNDS VAGUELY elvish, like something from the pages of Tolkien. In fact, the Charter of the Forest is one of Britain’s founding political documents, dating from the same period as Magna Carta, the “Great Charter”, as the Charter of Liberties was known to distinguish it from its sylvan partner. Whereas Magna Carta concerned the interests of a few privileged barons, the Charter of the Forest was intended to safeguard those of commoners—in particular, their time-honoured right to make a living from the bounty of the great wild commons. As an economic institution, the commons now seems as old-fashioned as constitutional documents sealed by noblemen in meadows. To many economists, the spread of private property rights was essential to the creation of the modern world. But the shortcomings of commons can be overstated. They could usefully be granted a place in public policy today.
《森林宪章》（Charter of the Forest）这名字听起来有些奇幻，像是从托尔金的作品里蹦出来的。但它其实是英国的根本性政治文件之一，与《大宪章》出自同一时期（《大宪章》全称为《自由大宪章》，被广泛叫做《大宪章》而与《森林宪章》明确区分）。《大宪章》关注少数特权贵族的利益，《森林宪章》则旨在保护平民的权益，尤其是他们依靠广袤的野外公地的丰厚馈赠谋生的古老权利。“公地”这种经济制度如今看来就像贵族在草地上签署的宪法文件一样古旧。对许多经济学家来说，私有产权的扩展对现代世界的形成至关重要。然而公地的缺点有可能被夸大了。在当今的公共政策中应该有它的一席之地。
An ecologist, Garrett Hardin, coined the phrase “the tragedy of the commons” in a (shockingly eugenicist) essay in Science in 1968. But the free-rider problem that afflicts public goods has been well-known to economists for a century. Consider a pasture on which every herdsman may graze his cattle. Each has an incentive to use it as intensively as possible: since it is open to all, restraint exercised by one herdsman simply frees up grass to be chomped by another’s animals, leaving those who hold back worse off, not just relatively, but in absolute terms. The common pasture will inevitably end up overgrazed to the point of ruin. Many valuable public resources are similarly prone to overconsumption. Roadways become congested, waterways overfished and slices of electromagnetic spectrum crowded into uselessness, to the detriment of total social welfare.
一九六八年，生态学家加勒特·哈丁（Garrett Hardin）在《科学》杂志上发表的一篇（极度鼓吹优生的）文章里首创了“公地悲剧”（tragedy of the commons）一词。但对于公共物品被搭便车滥用的问题，经济学家们在百年前便已熟知。比如有一片草地，每个牧民都可以在上面放牧自家的牛群，那么他们都会尽可能密集地使用它：既然它对所有人开放，假如一个牧民克制放牧，只会让另一个牧民的牛吃到更多草，克制自律的人反而吃亏，而且损失是绝对的，而不仅仅是相对的。公共牧场将不可避免地因过度放牧而毁灭。许多有价值的公共资源同样容易被过度消费。道路变得拥挤，河道被过度捕捞，电磁频谱频段拥堵到无法使用，令社会整体福祉受损。
Two possible remedies are typically proposed. Governments may regulate access to the commons, as is usually the case with airspace, for instance. Or control over it may be sold, establishing a property right where none existed before. Economists tend to prefer the latter. Private owners have an incentive to use a resource sustainably, in order to maintain its long-term value. Privatisation should boost investment and innovation, too, since the profits flow to the owner.
Many economists see the spread of property rights as essential to kindling modern economic growth. Between the 16th century and the 19th most common land in England and Wales was enclosed and deeded to private owners. Economic historians long reckoned that enclosure, though unjust and brutal, spurred progress and laid the groundwork for industrialisation. Large tracts could be farmed more productively, freeing labourers to work in urban factories while also providing food to support them. “The break-up of the peasantry was the price England paid…to feed her growing population,” wrote Peter Mathias, an economic historian, in 1983. The Industrial Revolution seemed to bury the concept of the commons for good.
But such orthodoxies are being revisited. Privatising shared resources, it turns out, does not always lead to a productivity boom. More recent research suggests that enclosure may not have been such a boon for British agriculture or industry. Research by Robert Allen, an economic historian at New York University Abu Dhabi, concludes that the big, capitalist estates which resulted from enclosure were not much more productive than common land farmed by the yeomanry. Nor did the great lords who gained control of large tracts funnel their profits into industry. Most indulged in fine living; many were debtors rather than savers. As Guy Standing of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London writes in his book, “The Plunder of the Commons”, property rights can create an incentive for owners to use resources well, but they also grant the liberty to squander the fruits of their holdings.
但人们已开始重新审视这类正统观念。事实证明，公共资源的私有化并非总能提升生产率。较近期的研究表明，对英国农业或工业而言，圈地可能没有带来那么多的好处。纽约大学阿布扎比分校的经济史学家罗伯特·艾伦（Robert Allen）经研究得出结论，因圈地发展而来的大型资本主义庄园的生产效率并不比自耕农耕作的公地高很多。控制大片土地的地主也没有将自己所获的利润输送到工业发展中。他们大多沉迷奢华生活，许多人非但没有攒下财富，还欠债累累。伦敦大学东方与非洲研究学院的盖伊·史坦丁（Guy Standing）在其著作《公地掠夺》（The Plunder of the Commons）中写道，产权能激励所有者充分利用资源，但也给予了他们浪费自家成果的自由。
If privatising land raises productivity less than might have been expected, that could be because commons are not as doomed as used to be thought. In fact, many were well cared for. Elinor Ostrom, a Nobel prizewinner in economics, studied how rural villages around the world manage shared resources such as land or irrigation systems. The Swiss commune of Törbel, for instance, has successfully shared irrigation resources for more than half a millennium. An exclusive focus on states and markets as ways to control the use of commons neglects a varied menagerie of institutions throughout history. The information age provides modern examples, for example Wikipedia, a free, user-edited encyclopedia. The digital age would not have dawned without the private rewards that flowed to successful entrepreneurs. But vast swathes of the web that might function well as commons have been left in the hands of rich, relatively unaccountable tech firms.
A thirst for knowledge
Mr Standing thinks that the decline of commons caused useful civic concepts to fall into disuse. Medieval commoners expected both to benefit from and to help manage unowned social wealth. Prosperity today similarly depends on shared public resources, from customary behaviour that supports the rule of law to accumulated scientific knowledge to the environmental services provided by clean air, waterways and so on. Some institutional creativity might allow more resources to be managed as commons, reducing concentrations of wealth and power without much loss of economic efficiency.
A world rich in healthy commons would of necessity be one full of distributed, overlapping institutions of community governance. Cultivating these would be less politically rewarding than privatisation, which allows governments to trade responsibility for cash. But empowering commoners could mend rents in the civic fabric and alleviate frustration with out-of-touch elites. In her Nobel lecture Ms Ostrom said that public policy should “facilitate the development of institutions that bring out the best in humans”. That sounds like common sense.