I have argued in this series of posts that various strands of modern commons theory, though based, as well, on novel theoretical and empirical work, seem to lean heavily on the structures, examples, and sensibilities of stadial theories of civilization that rose to prominence in the late eighteenth century. These Enlightenment-era ways of thinking are admittedly outmoded as theories of history, but why should the historical sources of current theory matter?
Beyond the important goal of understanding the sources of our theories, foregrounding the continuing influence of stadial thinking on current theories of the commons should help us question some aspects of these theories by highlighting some of their oddities — such as the disproportionate weight of studies of hunting, herding, and the like among a far more diverse universe of commons situations that could be studied.
Possibly more important are the residues of the narrative of civilizational progress that continue to adhere to property theory. Carol Rose has noted ("Evolution of Property Rights", in 2 The New Palgrave Dictionary of Law and Economics 93, 94 (1998)) the quasi-religious belief in the advantages of private property held by some property theorists, especially those associated with the modern law and economics movement, according to which “an evolving property rights regime might lead humankind toward a new kind of earthly Paradise,” “a secular Eden of peace and plenty.” Rose’s own work, as well as that of some of the other commons theorists surveyed above, is free of this bias, remaining pointedly agnostic as to the direction of evolution among property regimes. But others — not only law and economics types but Hardinians and others — seem to accept (though they might not put it in these terms) that private property represents a more advanced stage of civilization than does the commons. This type of thinking lies at the root of many neoliberal policy prescriptions, from the importance of secure private property regimes to developing countries to the salience of cap-and-trade as a solution for climate change and other environmental problems.
|Lucas Cranach the Elder, The Garden of Eden (1530)|
Finally, on a more general level, I would like to highlight the central role that historical narratives or myths continue to play in nominally theoretical and normative scholarship. Myths are important, but so is clear-headed thinking about policy. By recognizing the myths on which much commons scholarship is built, we might be able to improve it.
I'd be happy for readers' thoughts. The full article is here.