Commons theory of voluntary action

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A common, or commons is a pool or set of shared resources together with the agents controlling inflows and outflows of resources from the pool. Historically, in Great Britain and elsewhere a commons is a bundle of rights held jointly or collectively by a group of people; traditionally referred to land or real property, more recently also includes many other types of valuables (knowledge, open source software information, copyrights, social relations). In the commons theory of voluntary action, the term commons also refers to an association of those controlling such resource pools or collectively holding such rights.

Roughly speaking, that which belongs to all, this latter term not always meaning everyone in any universal sense, but merely all those involved in a particular situation. In the case of commons, it typically means everyone who is a member, everyone who is part of a reference group, or everyone who matters or whose opinion must be taken into account.

Since its introduction into economic and social theory in 1968 by Garrett Hardin, the concept of the commons has exercised a powerful hold on the collective imagination. In a powerful environmentalist polemic, Hardin argued in a Scientific American piece that private actions causing air, water and other forms of pollution, were a rapidly forming tragedy which could only be prevented by massive public action to protect the commons. That claim is, if examined carefully, grounded in the dichotomy public and private. Key to the response to Hardin's tragedy

Since that time, the commons as a metaphor for collective resources has been applied to a wide variety of collective choice problems. In the process, commons theory in general has become of the major new theoretical developments in international social science in recent decades.

The commons theory of association seeks to apply the metaphors of the commons, including common goods, enclosure and the tragedy, to a range of problems of associations, organizations and the resources necessary to maintain them.

Fundamental Types of Commons

In the commons theory of voluntary action, one of the most fundamental distinctions evident in the existing research is between natural commons, human-directed natural commons and social commons. [1]. Natural commons are common pool resources entirely governed or regulated by natural biological or chemical processes. Human-directed natural commons are those involving associations or assembies seeking to collectively manage natural resource pools. Perhaps the best known examples of such commons are common field agriculture, common fisheries and collectively managed forests. Social commons are voluntary associations, nonprofit, social, scientific, religious, artistic, civic and other organizations and physical or symbolic assemblies (including scholarly and scientific journals) where the common pool resources are exclusively or predominantly symbolic and communication-based. Lindsay (2018) says “A commons might manage resources that are finite, as is the case with natural resources, or impossibly infinite, as is the case for knowledge and cultural commons” [2]

Another fundamental distinction among human-directed natural commons and social commons is between old commons, that are typically of indefinite origin, traditional, customary, rely on habit and routine, and self-governing and generally not governed or regulated by laws or regulations, and new commons, [3] New commons are common pool resources governed by definite, written constitutions, formally established by law or positive enactment. [4]



Abundance is one of the basic assumptions of the commons theory of voluntary action. In the original, it was termed "affluence" but several readers misread this as meaning that you have to be wealthy or rich to engage in philanthropy or join a commons, which is definitely not the case. Under the assumption of abundance, rational actors will choose to join a commons (in the form of making a gift of their time or resources) only if, for the time being, they have all they need to survive. They do not want for any basic necessities for the time being.

It is unreasonable to ask or expect a person in need of any basic necessity (food, clothing, shelter, etc.) to forego that need and donate their time, knowledge or resources to a common good. Abundance should not be confused with, or posed as a direct alternative to, the economic concept of scarcity which, in modern economics, functions less as an empirical term describing actual existing conditions, than as a metaphysical condition. The condition of abundance (or, economically speaking, existing surpluses of resources) is a necessary precondition of giving, philanthropic and otherwise, decisions to give, like all allocative decisions, are still made under condition of scarcity. Although abundance was stated in the original statement of the theory as an assumption, this was done largely as a short-cut to preclude the necessity of fuller discussion. [5]. Abundance is also in some cases a hypothesized empirical condition.


Another important assumption of the theory of the commons is the assumption of authenticity. It is assumed that rational actors in the commons are what they appear to be. (Etzioni, 1968) The assumption is essentially methodological: This assumption is behind the importance of the theoretical terms of the commons theory of voluntary action as ideal types. Actual physical behavior may depart from these ideal types in any number of ways without reducing their ability to point toward important phenomena. And the study of inauthenticity - of commons that are not what they purport to be - is an important element of the study of bad commons.

Collective interest

An assumption of the commons theory of voluntary action, like all commons theories, particularly in the wake of the work of Mancur Olson. Rational actors in a commons frequently assume a group or collective self-interest posture in which they treat a joint or mutual interest as a personal or individual interest.


Continuity is also an assumption of the commons theory of voluntary action. Actors in a commons assume the taken-for-granted attitude that things will continue much as they are until further notice (that is, until a new problem is perceived or the situation changes in other ways.)


Several writers and thinkers on the commons believe it to be a cultural universal (cf Weber, 2018). This is, in fact, a very difficult claim to establish or confirm, particularly if applied not only to all contemporary cultures, but also to the entire human past. The commons theory of voluntary action makes a slightly less demanding claim of near-universality. Whether or not notions of collective action based on shared ideals and pooled resources can, in fact, be found in all places at all times, it is certainly the case that commons can be identified in a great many cultures, past and present.

Common Resource Pools

Social Commons


Writers on the commons have, in recent years, coined a new term, commoning, to describe the actions of joining together around a shared or common resource pool. In its narrowest sense, the Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines it as the exercise of common rights to land use. In a much broader sense, some adherents of commons practice see it as "a different way of living and acting together."

Common Goods



  1. Roger A. Lohmann. "Commons." International Encyclopedia of Civil Society. Springer Publishers. 2009. 513-520.
  2. Lindsay Grace Weber. (2018). Commons. in Rosi Braidotti and Maria Hlavajova. Posthuman Glossary. London & New York: Bloomsbury Academic. 83.
  3. Charlotte Hess. (2009). Mapping the new commons. (
  4. Roger A. Lohmann. (2015). Voluntary Action in New Commons: Democracy in the Life World Outside Markets, States and Households. (
  5. Roger A. Lohmann. (1992). The Commons: New Perspectives on Nonprofit Organization, Voluntary Action and Philanthropy. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. (