Reviving the Public Commons With Private Incentives

Two reasons I believe the market system can play a vital role in building a better economy are: (1) it spawns entrepreneurs – the loner in a garage, the small group in a laboratory, the back-to-the-land organic farmer – in a way no other economic system ever has; and (2) incentives, economic and otherwise, work for most people, and I believe they can work for the common good.

That’s not to deny the destructive force that so much of corporate capitalism has become, riding roughshod over both workers and the environment. But I have seen in Detroit, for example, the amazing activity of mostly young people starting all kinds of small enterprises that have breathed life into a moribund city. Sure, many will fail, but it’s exciting to witness the ideas and the optimism behind them.

On another front, recent technological innovations make it possible to quantify, with unprecedented precision, improvements in water quality in our streams and rivers, which are the result of better landowner practices. This is important, Bernard Sweeney and I argue in an op-ed piece just published by The Nature Conservancy’s “Cool Green Science,”* because rivers provide 65% of America’s drinking water, and almost half of them are in poor condition. They are also the ultimate commons, used by everyone, but protected by few.

Implementing practices that benefit the whole community – and reverse decades of degradation of the nation’s waterways, require increased costs by the individual landowner, and they should be rewarded for improvements “that have not merely helped diminish the tragedy of the commons, but have begun to reverse it. We think it at once hopeful and ironic that a powerful incentive system, which has in the past done much to destroy the commons, may in the future help to revive it.”

*Based on a paper published by the not-quite-mass-market journal, “Freshwater Science.”

James G. Blaine

About James G. Blaine

Most of us undervalue what seem our tiny contributions to our communities and the world. As a result, we feel powerless, even victimized. But, like the butterfly effect in science, the lives we lead with our families, in our communities, and at work – all the so-called little things we do – collectively change the world. As I grow older, my ambition grows more modest but not less important: to participate fully and to contribute what I can. That’s my goal with this blog.