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The Problem of the Commons in Theory and History

It will be useful to begin with “the commons,” in order to put aside confusions that appear frequently in the economic and legal literature due to widely shared misconceptions about the “tragedy” of common-use exploitation of land, fisheries and other natural resources. That desertification is a tragic consequence of “over-grazing” in many parts of the world is not in doubt. Prolonged unrestricted livestock grazing in arid climates, by sheep in the Patagonian region of Argentina and by goat-herds in northern Chile has been a major contributor to contemporary desertification, just as unrestricted grazing by cattle in the rangelands of southern Texas was a factor in the region’s “dust bowl” during the 1930’s. Likewise, it is thought that after the 3 century C.E. the multiplying Bedouin sheep-flocks in the Negev combined with the decline of agriculture and the abandonment of the associated irrigation dams and channels to produce a reversion to the desert conditions that are found in the southern region of modern Israel.

But the exhaustion of village lands in medieval Europe due to over-grazing of their common fields, the illustration that Garrett Hardin provided as a parable supporting his argument that efficient natural resource use requires private property rights and market pricing of resource use, is just a fantasy. Its repetition, unfortunately, has served only to obscure an important lesson that the actual historical experience holds in regard to the management of common-use resources.

Europe in the Middle Ages never knew public domain “commons” of the sort Hardin imagined, and where once-cultivated lands were allowed to tumble down to grass and village settlements eventually were “lost.” This was symptomatic of the retreat of agriculture from the marginal, semi-arid regions into which population had expanded in the 13th and early 14th centuries—before the mortality crisis of the Black Death. In reality, the feudalized regions of western Europe knew no territories that formally were in the public domain; “null terre sans seigneur” (no lands without a lord) was the canonical expression of the situation under which control and exploitation rights over physical property—arable, pasture, woodlands and sub-surface mineral deposits—had come to be held by one or another king and their respective vassals. Thus, the areas of agrarian settlement where “common-rights” were established were not the wilderness or “waste,” but lay within the jurisdiction and governance of particular communities that regulated, inter alia, the number of animals that each of the holders of a tenure in the village could put to graze upon the common stubble-field following the harvest, or on the common meadow-lands close to the village. What is important to emphasize is that seasonally designated common-fields, and their meadow-lands were not open for all to use, not even for the villain tenants to exploit at will by bringing in additional hands from other villages, say to glean the fallen grains of wheat following the harvest and before cattle were turned into the fields to graze upon the stubble.8

The managed commons of the village communes in medieval (and early modern) Europe therefore exemplify the “club goods” form of resource commons—intermediate between the public domain and the regime of private property. The Commons in tangible


and the private domain. As will be seen in the following pages, I prefer the description of such arrangements as “club commons”

8 The presentation slides illustrate the detailed nature of the limitations placed upon the exercise of these “common rights,” in the case of Salford Manor, in Oxfordshire at the end of the 16th century.

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