This article was published in the Winter 1999-2000 issue of Formulations
by the Free Nation Foundation

Behavior in the Commons

by Richard O. Hammer

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About the Growth of Life
About the Commons
How Do Libertarians Behave in the Commons?
Something More Is Required
With a New Organization We Can Secure Liberty

illustration: Tabletop Critters

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If you find a wallet on a sidewalk, and if the wallet contains both cash and identification of the owner, what do you do?

I have written here a number of times about my theory of life. This theory offers a framework for thinking about many things, including ethics, property, and the organizations which make up life. In this article I will review a few points, attempting to bring you with me to an important conclusion: we living things must invest in building new alliances, new organizations.

Then I will add a few new thoughts, about how we behave in those circumstances where we do not find ourselves compelled, by libertarian principles, to act one way or another. I will suggest that libertarian principles, while useful for preserving existing property rights, offer no help in the essential process of building new organizations, whereas civility and altruism (the Satan of Ayn Rand) do offer help in this process.

I have tried to finish writing this particular article for each of the last three issues of Formulations. But each time, day after day has slipped away as I have attempted to wrap it up. With each succeeding issue the publication date drew near, and I had to drop something.

My trouble seems to be this: I am trying to compose a good, still snapshot, of a theory which refuses to sit still. It grows and evolves as I write about it. This time I have brought it to this stage by admitting to myself that it will be fuzzy on the edges.

Much of my difficulty derives, I think, from the lack of a vocabulary to describe what I see. I suppose I could attempt to introduce new words. But rather than go through that struggle, I choose to use already existing words to name the things I see. Unfortunately, already existing words bring many meanings with them, including meanings which do not belong here. So I find myself in a battle, trying to fight away interpretations which do not fit, so that one meaning which I intend will stand clear.

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About the Growth of Life

"Organization" is one of the words which I use in a novel way. Life seems to consist of a hierarchy of organizations. Small organizations, such as cells, somehow combine to make larger organizations, such as humans. Humans, and other organizations on this scale which we have named "organisms," combine in turn to make still larger organizations, such as plantations and states.

In my view, most of the progress that living things make derives from the success that living things achieve in organizing themselves into larger organizations. See the illustration with tabletop critters (below). This suggests how life advances-through formation of new and larger organizations.

Thus, it seems clear, large or complex patterns of energy and raw materials can be exploited by numerous organizations acting together. This exploitation becomes possible as individual members of the larger organization learn the rules which profit them as individuals, acting within the larger organization.

I propose that something like this goes on in life. Ever-larger organizations form to help their constituents live better by tapping ever-larger features in the environment. We humans and the organizations which we have formed are yet far too small to tap the energy of the Sun and the raw material of Jupiter. But vast opportunity lies in that direction, and in other directions, for those of us who can organize successfully to tap as-yet-unclaimed resources.

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About the Commons

In the past I have written a number of times about "public space." I chose the term "public space" because I want to use it to show a contrast with private space. But I do not see many clues that I have succeeded in communicating the concept I have in mind. Thinking that perhaps a new term will help, recently I have noticed that the term "common" has received a fair amount of usage, with a meaning close to that which I intend for "public space."1 So in this article I will start to use "common" to mean the same as "public space."

I have argued that we can understand the nature of property better if we think of choice as the fundamental unit of property. We can perceive more accurately what is going on if we think of owning bundles of choices, pertaining to things, rather than of owning the things themselves. Thus, when I write about a private space or a common, I am referring more to a bundle of choices than I am referring to a particular three-dimensional space.

The distinguishing feature of a common is the public ownership of choices. In a common, choices are owned by no one, by everyone, or by some authority which is often absent.

Looking closer, we can see two types of commons. The first type are frontiers not yet occupied. In frontiers not yet occupied there are no choices which are worth owning (no choices which are worth the effort to stake and police a claim). For an example I would say that the tabletop in the above illustration was a common of this type before the water and sugar were deposited there.

The second type of commons are created by acts of state. Here the choices are worth owning, but the state has outlawed private ownership of these choices and declared itself to be the owner. An example of this type of common is a street owned and policed, if at all, by government. (As an aside, I have argued that most of the worst problems that beset human society fester in this type of common.2 But that is not the subject of this article.)

There is a tendency, I contend, for all choices which are worth controlling to become privately owned. We living organizations naturally seek our self-interest. We naturally lay claim to choices which seem unowned and potentially useful to us. This process goes on in parallel with the process mentioned above, in which new and larger organizations are continually growing. These two processes seem closely related.

So a common is like a vacuum, inviting control to enter. As private parties take power to make choices in commons, those commons become privatized. Because of this, a common is transient.

The example of the critters on the tabletop shows the natural growth of private interest and private control. Before the line of trade is established between water and sugar there is no spot on the tabletop which any of the critters would consider worth claiming. But after the line of trade is established it becomes valuable to be in that line.

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How Do Libertarians Behave in the Commons?

Now, in this model of life, let us apply what we know about libertarian principles to see if it can predict how libertarians will behave in various circumstances. Suppose some of the tabletop critters are libertarians.

These libertarian critters will not push other critters out of the line of trade, to take their places in the line. That would be aggression. They will not grab away any water or sugar which is clearly the property of some other critter. That would be theft. Furthermore, libertarian critters will honor their contracts in trade (assuming these critters become fancy enough to have something like promises).

Thus we see that our libertarian friends will respect property rights which are already well established. But how will they behave in circumstances which are not so clear? That is, how will they behave in what remains of the common? Consider three situations.

First, suppose that some tidbits of sugar have been left momentarily unattended, at a busy point alongside the trading chain. Suppose the place is not clearly within the established realm of any critter. So, even though it appears that some trader just set these down while she was attending to another transaction, according to presently established conventions these tidbits do not belong to anyone. Libertarians can snap them up, all of them, without qualm.

Second, consider a situation in which the terms of a trading relationship have come into flux. Imagine, for example, that a libertarian has a place in the trading chain. The libertarian's neighbor in the chain starts receiving water in larger units from farther down the chain, and would therefore like to revise his terms with the libertarian. The previous terms only mentioned "units" without mentioning their size, because the size was assumed to be the old standard.

Suppose this neighbor has tried to meet the libertarian to arrange new terms, but has failed at first to find the libertarian. The neighbor does not want to inconvenience the libertarian, whenever the libertarian might arrive at the location where they routinely leave the units which they trade. Suppose the neighbor decides to trust that he and the libertarian will reach some reasonable settlement, so he simply leaves the larger units.

Now, how will the libertarian act when he finds the larger units? We cannot predict. According to libertarian standards, he has no obligation to reciprocate in proportion. He can, without qualm, treat the units which he has received as if they were no larger.

Third, consider the tabletop before the line of trade is ever established. Will libertarian critters contribute to the effort to create the new line of trade? Maybe, maybe not. Libertarian values do not require any investment in the future.

Wrapping up this section, I hope you will agree with me when I conclude that libertarian values serve well to protect clearly established property rights. But libertarian values, taken alone, do not lead libertarians to be trustworthy in any commons, in any situations where doubt exists as to the exact delineation of rights.

And, even worse, if any libertarian believes that libertarian values should provide the only restraints on her behavior, then she may believe that she should take everything which is not nailed down, in every relationship which has vagueness in any of its terms. Libertarians values, if taken this way, endorse unrestrained pilfering.

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Something More Is Required

Before I can wrap up my sermon here, I need you to leap to one more conclusion with me. But first let us review two leaps which I hope you have already made with me:

1. Life exists as a hierarchy of organizations, with the higher organizations reaching and exploiting ever larger or more complex resources in the environment.

2. Our best hopes for the future lie in our ability to discover the sets of rules which, by guiding our behavior as individuals, will organize us so that we can exploit both ever-larger and ever-more-subtle reserves.

Here is the last leap:

When we practice neighborly behavior (which might be taken to include civility, kindness, and even altruism) this increases the chance that we will find ourselves included in a new chain of trade. This chain might form either spontaneously or by conscious design. It would bring new benefits to all its members.

With this last leap, I am trying to suggest a way that new rules might be discovered to produce new organizations. Perhaps it works this way. An act of neighborly behavior may communicate a hope for a new set of rules. Someone choosing to act in a benevolent way may be saying, subconsciously, that she would like behavior such as hers to be the norm, in circumstances such as these.

Of course the choices of other individuals would need to be coordinated. But if this could be achieved, then the new set of rules would be almost established. Each individual in a new network could expect certain behavior from his neighbors, in predictable circumstances. For practical purposes, this resembles a network of private contracts. When this has happened, we could say that a common has been privatized.

If this is all true, it simply underlines what your mother may have told you: If you are nice to people even when you do not have to be nice to them, then they will want to do more things with you in the future.

Of course, I do not recommend universal and unconsidered self-sacrifice. It is possible to give too much. By giving too much you can not only injure yourself, but also injure the interests of any others who might benefit in the future from trading with you in full strength.

Libertarian values specify a minimum standard by telling us the minimal amount of consideration which we should give to other people. Certainly this world would be a better place if everyone accepted libertarianism as their minimum. But, I preach, after we have achieved this minimum, and thus enforced the property rights which already exist today, we need to work on building the relationships of the future. And, unless I am mistaken, libertarian values offer no guidance in building our future relationships.

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With a New Organization We Can Secure Liberty

The present environment on Earth has a vast, untapped resource: the unfettered human spirit. A new free nation, if it could be organized, could release some of the energy in this resource. With this energy it could easily defend itself, as needed, from other, poorer nations, which cling to statism.

I also believe that we who want liberty have, among us, easily enough talent and wealth to secure such a new free nation. But how can the rules be learned? How can libertarians be organized to bridge the gap, to start the flow in this new release of energy?

In FNF I have been trying to start a think tank which I believe could catalyze birth of this nation. Since my effort has entailed the building of a new organization, it calls for extra effort, beyond what is required by the libertarian minimum. This extra effort needs to be channeled, I believe, by new rules which I have struggled to communicate. I plan to continue trying, in one way or another. D

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Tabletop Critters

illustrating how organizations prosper when individuals follow simple rules

Imagine a flat surface, perhaps a tabletop, upon which some tiny, perhaps one-celled, critters live. These critters need both water and sugar to live, and this tabletop upon which they find themselves is basically a desert. The wind blows, and occasionally deposits a few molecules of water or sugar within reach. These conditions support a population of only a few thousand of these critters, which live near starvation, scattered over the tabletop.

Now suppose that onto this tabletop fate places a drop of water at some spot, and a crumb of sugar at another spot a centimeter from the water. Suppose that this distance, a centimeter, is much farther than any one of these critters can travel in its entire lifetime, but suppose that the critters do have ability to pick up raw materials, carry them for small distances, and then drop them again.

This environmental pattern, the pair of reserves of water and sugar, looks like a niche ready to be exploited. If the critters can learn appropriate rules of behavior, millions of them can start to live in a filament of trade between the water and sugar.

The critters who would make up this chain of trade would need to follow some simple rules. Such rules might be:

1. If you see water on the left, carry it to the right and set it down.

2. If you see sugar on the right, carry it to the left and set it down.

3. If you get thirsty or hungry, help yourself to what you need from the materials that pass through your possession.





1 See for instance: Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: the Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, Cambridge University Press, 1990.

2 "A Theory for Libertarianism," Formulations, Vol. V, No. 3 (Spring 1998).



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