Regurgitating the Myth of the Tragedy of the Commons

Keith Parkins
Apr 1, 2017 · 8 min read
South Common Lincoln

A sad classic example of regurgitating the Myth of the Tragedy of the Commons.

That something is taught in economics text books, does not make it correct.

We have the same with the Myth of Barter, created by Adam Smith and regurgitated by text books ever since.

As David Graber shows in Debt, it has no basis in reality.

With a couple of rare exceptions of Steve Keen and Yanis Varoufakis, economists did not foresee the banking crisis of 2008, or that we are now postcapitalism.

We had economists provide the theoretical underpinning for dodgy financial instruments. They peddled the concept of risk-less risk. Two got the Nobel Prize. A couple of days later, Lehman Brothers collapsed.

Interestingly, the next award of the Nobel Prize was to Elinor Ostrom for her pioneering work on commons.

Maybe, as David Bollier writes in Think Like a Commoner, the Nobel Prize committee was trying to send a message.

Ostrom’s impressive body of work earned her the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2009 (alongside Oliver Williamson). I like to think that the Nobel Prize committee was spooked by 2008 financial crisis and wished to shed a light on the profusion of alternatives to markets — nonmarket forms of provisioning and resource management that are nonetheless productive, stable and sustainable.

How stable can be seen in the Swiss Alps. The villagers of Törbel have managed their alpine meadows, forests and irrigation waters since 1224.

In Tenerife, the water is manged collectively through a system of tanks and gullies that run atop of walls. It is only in recent years it has fallen into disuse following the introduction of municipal water supplies and electric pumps.

Another myth is that markets self-correct. They do not, as we saw with the banking crisis, the banks had to be bailed out. The banks should have been allowed to go to the wall. Those who were not bailed out, who should have been bailed out, lost their homes.

As Paul Mason shows in PostCapitalism, the criminal bankers knew exactly what they were doing, but they hoped to be long gone before the extent of their criminality was uncovered.

The Market is itself a myth.

The only true market we see is the fruit and vegetable stall in the town square, everything else is a rigged market.

Another myth is that of separation of state and market.

Markets can only function within the regulatory framework of the state.

As documented by David Graeber in Debt, the state created the market. The state controls the gold and silver mines, the mint. The mint produces the coinage to pay the solders. The peasants bring their produce to market to exchange for coins of the realm. The coins of the realm are then used to pay taxes to the state.

Markets rely on price as a signal to function, without price they cannot function.

  • Classic Marx: cost is equal to land, labour and capital.
  • Postcapitalism Marx: cost is equal to land, labour, capital and information.

Unless restricted by Draconian copyright and intellectual property rights, which also restrict innovation, the tendency of information is to flow, once I know something I cannot unknow it.

The cost of information tends to zero, the price of information goods, those with a high information content tends to zero, thus there is no signal on which a market can function.

Wikipedia is a good example. People contribute freely, the content is free. As Paul Mason documents in PostCapitalism, the market cannot compete with free.

At least students are now demanding economic courses that teach economics that reflect the world as it is, not the make believe world economists wish it to be.

Economics is not a science.

A commons is the commons and the commoners, one does not exist without the other, there is social interaction, the commons self-regulators, adapts to changing circumstances.

If the Tragedy of the Commons were not a myth, Wikipeda would not exist, Open Source Software would not exist, Linux on which the internet is built would not exist.

The only surprise of the myth of the Tragedy of the Commons is that it ever gained traction, as seriously flawed.

If we look at what was stated by Medium five years ago:

So, we are shifting our resources and attention to defining a new model for writers and creators to be rewarded, based on the value they’re creating for people. And toward building a transformational product for curious humans who want to get smarter about the world every day.

It is too soon to say exactly what this will look like.

It looks very much like a commons to me. I see no mention that writers will be paid, I see no mention of charge for access. But I do see the creation of a common wealth.

What was created, and what Medium functions as, is a de facto commons.

Writers are not writing to be paid, they are writing because they have something to say, they wish to be read.

And even Ev Williams has admitted, Medium has been a success, it has attracted quality writing.

I was one of those writers, contributors of high quality content, who were invited to be paid, to reside behind the razor wire of enclosed commons. I declined the offer.

If you wish to support quality reporting, then support The Intercept, but do not confuse with hacks paid to write to fill column inches with meaningless drivel.

For writers there are always options such as LeanPub and Unbound, though each has its faults.

But yes, where I would agree, the problem lies with the greed of Vulture Capitalist, who were simply looking to make a fast buck.


It’s a crying shame, really. I love Medium. It’s the best writing environment on the web, and they sweat the details like nobody else. The community too is just peach. This could have been a love story for the ages.

But I don’t think we’ll grow old together, Medium and I. I suspect it’ll end quite tragic, actually. $132,000,000 is a lot of money after all, and that’s how much venture capital Medium has been dipped in. Before having a prayer or a song about how to turn into that multi-billion-dollar business it must to satisfy the required rate of return.

As DHH points out in his enlightening essay RECONSIDER, on entrepreneurship:

Part of the problem seems to be that nobody these days is content to merely put their dent in the universe. No, they have to fucking own the universe. It’s not enough to be in the market, they have to dominate it. It’s not enough to serve customers, they have to capture them.

In fact, it’s hard to carry on a conversation with most startup people these days without getting inundated with odes to network effects and the valiance of deferring “monetization” until you find something everyone in the whole damn world wants to fixate their eyeballs on.

In this atmosphere, the term startup has been narrowed to describe the pursuit of total business domination. It’s turned into an obsession with unicorns and the properties of their “success”. A whole generation of people working with and for the internet enthralled by the prospect of being transformed into a mythical creature.

As Charles Eisenstein has pointed out in Sacred Economics, few make money on the internet, and the economic value of the activity is a fraction of that it displaces.

Amazon screws publishers and writers, facebook abuses our personal data, Google spies on our every move, all dodge tax.

To cite DHH again:

Independence isn’t missed until it’s gone. And when it’s gone, in the sense of having money masters dictate YOUR INCREDIBLE JOURNEY, it’s gone in the vast majority of cases. Once the train is going choo-choo there’s no stopping, no getting off, until you either crash into the mountain side or reach the IPO station at lake liquidity.”

I wanted to make a product and sell it directly to people who’d care about its quality. There’s an incredible connection possible when you align your financial motivations with the service of your users. It’s an entirely different category of work than if you’re simply trying to capture eyeballs and sell their attention, privacy, and dignity in bulk to the highest bidder.

I’m going to pull out another trite saying here: It feels like honest work. Simple, honest work. I make a good product, you pay me good money for it. We don’t even need big words like monetization strategy to describe that transaction because it is so plain and simple even my three year-old son can understand it.

I wanted to put down roots. Long term bonds with coworkers and customers and the product. Impossible to steer and guide with a VC timebomb ticking that can only be defused by a 10–100x return. The most satisfying working relationships I’ve enjoyed in my close to two decades work in the internet business have been those that lasted the longest.

There is a big difference between sustainability, organic growth, securing the future viability of Medium as a commons, and satisfying the insatiable greed of Vulture Capitalists.

Enclosing the Medium commons has nothing to do with paying writers, collaboration with fellow commoners was its own reward. It has everything to do with feeding the insatiable greed of Vulture Capitalists.

The Vulture Capitalists have failed to recognise we are now postcapitalism, where information flows freely.

They have also failed to recognise, blinded by their greed, that without the commoners, there is no Medium commons.

Light on a Dark Mountain

The machine is stuttering and the engineers are in panic. They are wondering if perhaps they do not understand it as well as they imagined. They are wondering whether they are controlling it at all or whether, perhaps, it is controlling them.— The Dark Mountain Manifesto

Keith Parkins

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Writer, thinker, deep ecologist, social commentator, activist, enjoys music, literature and good food.

Light on a Dark Mountain

The machine is stuttering and the engineers are in panic. They are wondering if perhaps they do not understand it as well as they imagined. They are wondering whether they are controlling it at all or whether, perhaps, it is controlling them.— The Dark Mountain Manifesto

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