Journal of Bioeconomics


My paper titled Increasing cooperation among plants, symbionts, and farmers is key to past and future progress in agriculture is now available on-line at the Journal of Bioeconomics, if your library has the right kind of subscription. Otherwise, they want $40 to download the paper. It would be cheaper to buy a hardbound copy of my book. The paper has some new material that's not in the book, of course, but the book is still probably a better deal. Does anyone pay that much to download one paper?

I'm in Saskatoon to give a department seminar and speak at a student-organized symposium. I'll add a web link if I find one, but here's last year's, where Wes Jackson spoke. That could have been an interesting debate.


Nice paper. One of the criticisms of Hardin's 'tragedy of the commons' framework is that what he calls a 'common' is really an open access regime, ie. access is a complete free for all, and you don't really find this in settled agricultural societies: rather it's a feature of situations such as colonial frontiers or fisheries, which is why these are so often over-exploited. 'Commons' in agricultural societies are not free for alls: it's usually very clearly defined exactly who is able to access exactly what resources exactly when - it's just that ownership is not particularised. I think people don't always understand this very well these days when they speak of 'global commons' as a bulwark against the privatisation of property rights. Your analysis is very interesting inasmuch as it points to the agricultural benefits of a commons over purely privatised property - there are whole-landscape level public goods which can't easily be privatised, but need to be taken care of if agricultural productivity is to be optimised, and this argument holds true even within the logic of a private property regimen, leaving aside larger political questions about the rights and wrongs of private vs public ownership. Given our strongly individualised modern conceptions of property and personal income maximisation, attempting to impose wider public sanctions is easily seen as bureaucratic meddling - perhaps it would be better packaged as a commons (the difference perhaps is that 'commons' generally involve self-regulation in local agrarian societies, whereas public legislatures have other axes to grind). But as you show in your paper, the interactions of public and private interest are complex, context-dependent and sometimes counter-intuitive. I'm tempted to make the same point regarding the interaction between individual organisms and/or species and the wider ecosystems of which they form a part in response to the debate started by Andy McGuire about agricultural 'improvement' and the balance of nature. But I'm hoping to produce a fuller analysis of that soon!

Hi Ford, yes I think you've captured my argument. A common (excuse the pun) interpretation of Hardin seems to be that common property encourages over-exploitation so it's better to internalise all the costs through individualised private property rights to avoid free riders. But if in so doing you fail to internalise some of the costs such as landscape level 'ecosystem services' (and by their nature these are hard to privatise) you get private rights-holders free riding the ecosystem services - a 'tragedy of the privates' as a kind of inverse of Hardin's formulation. So then you need collective regulation of the private rights-holders, which is what a 'common' properly conceived might have done in the first place.

Your examples from Australia, India etc are fascinating because to make much sense of all this you need specific details of this sort of what the landscape level issues are, and what motivations and room for manoeuvre the individual rights-holders have. Otherwise the debate tends towards polarised generalities along predictable political lines between those who romanticise private property and those who romanticise common property.

Ford, since this discussion with you I came across a very interesting article by Simon Fairlie which discusses Hardin's article and the history of common property regimes in England, including a fascinating account of mixed private/common property in dairying. You might find it of interest - it's more subtle than you might think from the somewhat politically charged abstract

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