To Common or Not to Common? Why did some Pre-Industrial Societies Use the Commons to Exploit their Resources while Others did not? A Hypothesis based on the Social Distribution of Risk

Activity: Talk or presentationOral presentationAcademic


"In recent years, scholars have tried to explain why the commons developed more intensively and more widespread in certain parts of pre-industrial Europe than in other parts. It has been shown that in certain cases, societies did often benefit from exploiting their resources collectively using a host of common rights and institutions. Some of these new interpretations are overwhelmingly positive of the role of commons, past and present. If that is then in fact true, an obvious question (not always explicitly addressed or framed in this way) is why so many societies of pre-industrial Europe either (a) did not decide to use the commons or (b) dismantled the commons very quickly? In particular, many scholars have put a lot of precedence on the negation of risk when arguing for the economic rationale of the commons. The problem with this literature, however, is that it is implicitly accepted that risk avoidance and sharing are all things that every pre-industrial society aimed to achieve or could benefit from. Instead in this paper, it is argued that the emergence of the commons in parts of pre-industrial Europe was not linked to a universal need for risk avoidance per se but rather was dependent on the social distribution of risk. Societies with highly equitable social distribution of risk were those with (a) a large number of inhabitants with access to the means of production (for example, an egalitarian distribution of property), (b) an equitable balance of political power between interest groups, and (c) high levels of freedom to choose their own economic path and make decisions. In contrast, societies with highly inequitable social distribution of risk were those with (a) a large number of inhabitants divorced from the means of production (for example, a highly polarised distribution of property), (b) a skewed imbalance in power concentrated in the hands of dominant interest groups, and (c) restrictions on large portions of the population to choose their own economic path. In this paper, it is hypothesized that the commons were only logically used or only made economic sense in societies characterised by highly equitable social distribution of risk. However, in societies with more inequitable social distributions of risk, it is argued that societies would very rarely use the commons as a predominant mode of exploitation (if at all), and if they did appear they would be insubstantial or be usurped and disappear very quickly."
Period30 Nov 2012
Event title'Design and Dynamics of Institutions for Collective Action’ in honour of Prof. dr. Elinor Ostrom
Event typeConference
LocationUtrecht, The NetherlandsShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational