Saturday, October 15, 2016

A Beautiful Passage from Governing the Commons

The following is from Governing the Commons by Elinor Ostrom. The book (and Ostrom’s body of research more broadly) is about how communities that own a common property govern it. Governance is not always supplied by an explicit “government”. Often the governance is a set of formal and informal rules and enforcement mechanisms agreed upon by the community, with little or no oversight by the state. Ostrom was one of the winners of the 2009 Nobel prize in economics, and to date is the only woman to have won the prize.

I love the following passage. It describes the communal rules in a Japanese mountain village. The common resource in question is the surrounding forest. The villagers need wood from the trees and other plants for various purposes. Nobody wants their neighbors to over-harvest the forest, but it's tempting to "cheat" and take more than one's fair share. Villages set official rules, along with specified fines for rule-breaking, and they hire detectives to enforce these rules. The following passages are from pages 68-69 of Governing the Commons. "Mountain opening day" refers to the day that the surrounding forest is officially open for harvest. Fines were often paid in sake to the detective who caught a rule-breaker. With that context, here's the passage:

Although the level of rule compliance was very high, violations certainly occurred. McKean reports several types of infractions. Impatience with waiting for mountain-opening day was one reason. In the period just before the official opening of the commons for harvesting a particular plant, the detectives expected-and found-a higher level of infractions and were able to keep themselves well supplied with sake.
A second reason for rule violations sometimes was genuine disagreement about the management decisions of a village headman. McKean illustrates this type of infraction in the following way:
“One former detective in Hirano, now a respected village elder, described how he had been patrolling a closed commons one day and came upon not one or two intruders but thirty, including some of the heads of leading households. It was not yet mountain-opening day, but they had entered the commons en masse to cut a particular type of pole used to build trellises to support garden vegetables raised on private plots. If they could not cut the poles soon enough, their entire vegetable crop might be lost and they believed tha the village headman had erred in setting opening day later than these crops required. (McKean 1986, P 565).”
 In that instance, fines were imposed, but they involved making a donation to the village school, rather than the usual payment of sake. In her conclusion, McKean stresses that the long-term success of these locally designed rule systems indicates “that it is not necessarily for regulation of the commons to be imposed coercively from the outside” (McKean 1986 p 571).
Emphasis mine. I absolutely love this. A rule of law exists. Everyone approves of this rule of law, but everyone appears to agree that the "law-makers" have erred. So everyone breaks the bad rule, but they also agree to pay a fine to preserve the reining order, which they all believe is necessary (if fallible). The enforcer must somehow preserve his moral authority. He can't demand his regular fine of sake, paid directly to him, from an entire village that has just repudiated his rule. But a fine must be paid by the villages to acknowledge their approval of the reigning order, so they donate to the village school instead.

Modern governments could take a lesson or two from this book. I'm trying to imagine how silly it would be for a central government in Tokyo to tell these villagers how to manage their common property. The knowledge necessary to manage these properties does not exist in Tokyo; it doesn't even exist locally until specific decisions are needed for a specific purpose. It's absurd to think we could simply codify rules for every possible circumstance and apply these rules as needed. I think federal and state governments need to take a hands-off approach to these kinds of local "common property management" problems. Locally, people need to do a better job of providing their own governance.

(In the passage, "McKean 1986" refers to the article "Management of Traditional Common Lands (Iriaichi) in Japan" in a publication called Proceedings of the Conference on Common Property Resource  Management.)

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