, , , ,

Let’s say you’re worldbuilding a new setting, and you want to experiment with a different kind of property system than feudalism or bourgeois property. Presumably, you want a property system that leads to more humane results and better use of resources—or maybe you want a system that encourages waste and oppression, the better to foster story conflict! So what kinds of systems are out there, and under what circumstances do they tend to have good or bad results?

It turns out that different kinds of things work better under different kinds of property regimes, shockingly enough. In particular, economists tend to point to two features of a good: whether it is excludable, and whether it is rivalrous. “Excludable” means that you can keep people from using the good. For example, I can prevent you from driving my car; but I can’t prevent you from breathing the air (which is nonexcludable). “Rivalrous” means that if one person uses the good, another person cannot. For example, if I eat an apple, you can’t eat the same apple. But if I listen to a radio station, you can listen to the same radio station without interfering with me.

I can already see your eyes glazing over; so let’s give an illustration:

Archdruid Thorne strode into the shrine, his eyes briefly glancing at the throngs of worshippers forlornly waiting outside the sacred building. Commoners were not allowed inside the shrine, forbidden to benefit from the life-granting energies it generated. They could only make offerings of food and coins at the door, in the hopes that one of the druids would deign to bring out a Stone of Life, which would heal illnesses of all who stood near it (no matter how common)—for a brief time.

Even though the druids jealously guarded their powers, still the mere presence of the shrine benefited the region. The air was cleaner, the rain was gentler, and the animals in the area more fertile and easily captured. So the people might grumble about the druids’ arrogance, but not very loudly.

Thorne sniggered. Today was the day, the day when he could finally unseat High Druid Ferrus and seize the Ring of Command for himself. Only one finger might wear the Ring of Command, and now that finger would be Thorne’s.

So, in this model we end up with a good old 2×2 matrix:

  • A good that is rivalrous and excludable (like a gold bar, or a chocolate cake, or a sleeping bag, or a bottle of water) is called a private good.
  • A good that is nonrivalrous and nonexcludable (like clean air, or a radio station) is called a public good.
  • A good that is nonexcludable but still rivalrous (like water in a river, or fish in the ocean) is called a common-pool resource.
  • A good that is excludable but not rivalrous (like a website behind a password, or membership in a museum) is called a club good or toll good.

(This model is a blunt instrument, but it still helps us grapple with some important concepts.)

Entire books can be and have been written about each of these concepts. For now, let’s examine common-pool resources a bit more.

In 1968, biologist Garrett Hardin published a hugely influential article, “The Tragedy of the Commons.” In it, he presented a type of economic good called a commons, and argued that relying merely on private property regimes to regulate its use would result in disaster. In his example, several herdsmen share a meadow, the “commons,” to graze their animals. If grass is plentiful, each herdsman has an incentive to add more animals. But if everyone does this, eventually the grass will be overgrazed and the commons will be destroyed. Thus, concludes Hardin, in a situation where private actors have incentives to overuse a shared resource, only government regulation of the commons will preserve it for the future and ensure that people benefit from it optimally. (Specifically, he was arguing for government-enforced population controls—”Freedom to breed is intolerable,” as he put it. But the argument is more general.)

This article became a powerful justification for government regulation of all kinds, and particularly regulatory regimes controlling natural resources. In response, as the incompetence and hubris of many government regulatory schemes became apparent, free-market economists led a push for deregulation in favor of private property. The argument was that, as Milton Friedman stated, “Nobody spends somebody else’s money as carefully as he spends his own. Nobody uses somebody else’s resources as carefully as he uses his own. So if you want efficiency and effectiveness, if you want knowledge to be properly utilized, you have to do it through the means of private property.”

As true as this is, it is incomplete. Unfortunately, not all goods function well as private property. In practice, government schemes of privatization sometimes work well, but sometimes amount to expropriating a common good and granting it to some well-connected oligarch for pennies on the dollar. (Or kopeks on the ruble, to be precise.)

Sadly, it took until Nobel-Prize economist Elinor Ostrom’s 1990 book Governing the Commons before policymakers understood that there are more options when dealing with resources than just private property or government control. Ostrom clarified the idea of a common-pool resource, such as fish in a lake or water in a river, which can be accessed by many people, and depleted by use. She argued that common-pool resources were often managed more effectively by their own users, cooperating with each other, than by government bureaucrats who often had little understanding of what they were doing. (Governments can still play a role, by providing resources to the locals or enforcing their mutual contracts, for example.)

I’ve not seen much fiction that featured communities of people stewarding a common-pool resource, but it’s a fertile area for stories. The management of a common-pool resource is perfect for generating story conflict. Will the users moderate their use enough to keep the common pool viable? Will some people try to cheat, and extract more resources than they are allowed to? Will the users face a sudden problem like a drought or poachers or the failure of the Standing Stones of Wisdom, and will they be able to converge on the right response? Might the local government try to seize control of the common pool, believing in its arrogance that it could do a better job of managing it than the users—or perhaps simply to extract taxes?

One more idea to chew on, just because I personally like it. In The Cathedral and the Bazaar, a book about open-source software development. To explain why many programmers work on open-source software for free and release such software for anyone to use, Eric S. Raymond discussed the concept of a bazaar good. Briefly, there is a relatively small class of public goods with the property that their creators gain enough utility from creating them that they would do it without needing to sell the good—and the goods also also become more valuable to the public as more people create them. Obviously, writing certain kinds of software is the most common example.

I’ve often mused that government subsidies might be redesigned to create new classes of quasi-bazaar goods, and achieve more efficient results. I’m not sure how, but fiction is a good place to noodle over such things.


(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series. Many of the previous posts in this series eventually became grist for my handbook for authors and game designers, Beyond Kings and Princesses: Governments for Worldbuilders. The topic of this post belongs in the planned second book in this series, working title Tyranny for Worldbuilders. No idea when it will be finished, but it should be fun!)