Complex modern market economies would cease to function were they not pervaded by commons. These are not commons on the model of the centuries-old irrigation districts or pastures that inspired and shaped three decades of the study of the commons, pioneered by Elinor Ostrom. Rather, these are commons that all modern economies live and breathe on, commons over which no one exerts exclusionary proprietary claims and that are available for all to use on symmetric terms. These commons are the highways and roads that make arteries and capillaries, the sidewalks and squares that facilitate the flow of commerce and public life in the world’s metropolitan engines. These are the utilities—electricity, water, and sewage to power, feed, and cleanse—and the major shipping lanes and container standards that make trade flow smoothly. These are also math and geometry, scientific data, ideas, knowledge, and truths ascertained. So too is the Internet, from its very core standards to the software that runs the overwhelming majority of servers, and the rule of law to govern them all.
None of these is built on a classic model of property rights and free market exchange between an owner—who centralizes in a single decision maker all rights to exclude, use, manage, and dispose of the object of the property—and all others, an owner whose exclusive control thereby centralizes the coordination among all comers and their diverse valuations of the resource. Sure, there are private property roads; there are proprietary power generators, pumps, and cesspools or septic tanks. But these are a sideshow. The main event for all these systems is open commons: systems that eschew the core of property—the allocation of asymmetric rights to exclude, use, and manage the resource set whose use they govern—and instead offer (a) symmetric access and use privileges to (b) an open class of potential users. The price system works when there is asymmetric allocation—it consists in the use of prices to determine comparative availability of the resource for competing uses. Symmetricaccess privileges, even when priced, abandon the use of price for fine-grained allocation, and rely instead on any one of a range of alternative systems: queuing being the most common, social determination an oft-found alternative.
Brett Frischmann’s new book, Infrastructure: The Social Value of Shared Resources, is the most recent and sustained contribution to the still-small but growing literature seeking to explore the central role of large-scale open commons in modern economies. It is an ambitious effort and invites us to think about four major questions: first, the question of the provision of classic public goods and a range of quasi-public goods; second, the question of property versus commons as institutional forms for managing the production and use of a wide range of resources and goods that play a critical role in any well-functioning capitalist economy; third, the respective roles of market production, public provisioning, and social production in providing these critical resources; and fourth, the costs and benefits of general institutional solutions and analyses as compared to analyses that are more context specific to spheres of action.
In this, the book is an important contribution to a process of trying to mesh the longstanding work on the commons in the Ostrom school with the increasing pervasiveness of commons at the foundation of the networked information economy: knowledge and innovation, communications and computation. Ostrom herself began to explore this convergence over the past decade, in particular as applied to a wide range of new commons in sustained collaboration with Charlotte Hess. Carol Rose early pointed in this direction in Comedy of the Commons. But most of the work on understanding the role of the commons in contemporary society and economy developed over the course of the 1990s in a legal literature focused on the networked information economy, where “tragedy of the commons” is a fundamentally flawed metaphor: studies of the public domain in copyright and patent, and studies of communications networks and the then-emerging Internet. Frischmann here follows up on his original expansion of insights from the scholarship on the networked economy to “infrastructure” generally, with infrastructure taking on an extremely expansive definition.
Frischmann’s core claim is that (a) there is a set of resources whose use creates large positive externalities, particularly through facilitating downstream production activities of public and social goods (pp 61–66); (b) these resources are either nonrival or nonscarce over a sufficient range of their uses and renewable over the range of nonscarcity that the costs associated with implementing a private-property system during the noncongested periods outweigh the benefits of improved management during congestion (pp 61–63); and (c) these resources are often, and should be from an economic perspective (the core purpose of the book is to make the economic argument), subject to commons management, rather than property, where “commons” is marked primarily by emphasis on availability to all, of some level of access to the resource, on nondiscriminatory terms (pp 91–114).