Solving the "Tragedy of the Commons" with Private Property

I’ve found this video interesting. An example of how private ownership could improve the maintenance of public goods.


1 Like

First off, I think that is the nicest bathroom I have ever seen in a public space.

Secondly, I think we are kind of seeing this in FOSS. For example: React, npm, Golang are all supported by for-profit businesses (Facebook, GitHub/Microsoft, and Google respectively.)

Do they have nicer bathrooms (metaphorically speaking) than all non-profit public goods? Depends on who you are asking I suppose.

1 Like

I’m skeptical. I doubt that the example of the NYC park could not be replicated in every park across the nation and varying sizes of cities. The video does not properly support the final conclusion that privatizing is the best solution, always.

About bathrooms, I just heard a report on the radio that publicly funded and maintained bathrooms have mostly disappeared in the USA. People are now used to going to the bathroom maintained by businesses. I took away from the report that the disappearing of public bathrooms is following the logic that it filters the kind of users of bathrooms to those who are better off and could afford to buy something at the business - perpetuating the class inequalities. – Germany has taken that to the next level and you increasingly pay to use private bathrooms, look up SANIFAIR.

1 Like

I’m agree. The point is that always we could find exceptions to a general rule. Axiomatic assertions from renowned economists, such as those that saying “The free market has long been regarded as inferior to other institutional devices for making resource allocational decisions involving public goods.” Can be refuted recurrently, as we could find empirical evidence of situations that show the effectiveness of markets in particular cases.

That’s why it’s dangerous to think in absolute terms. When we theorize about the sustainability of public goods, we have to taking into account the personal experiences from individuals that are affected by market failures in their particular circumstances.

A really interesting video that really cherry-picked examples from NYC’s history of its financial collapse and eventual bankruptcy in the 1970s, largely driven by racist housing policy, red-lining, white exodus to suburbs, and eventual fiscal policy where NYC’s conservative president Gerald Ford told the city to “Drop Dead”. Anyways, the park shown is very nice and in a very expensive neighborhood. I’m sure many of the expensive services offered, paid for by the neighborhood’s wealthy residents, generate enough revenue to keep it going. I’d suspect if you were to try and privatize a park in Bed-Stuy, you’d have a different outcome.

I do think we see similar structures of power and control by firms and open source software (although I wouldn’t use the term privatizing to describe it). As @jdorfman mentioned, libraries like React and others are largely driven by firms. Most times in totalitarian fashion with total control over roadmap being held by employees of the firm and copyright being assigned by contributors through the use of a CLA.

Nathan Schneider and Calvin Liu write about this structure of open source governance in his article Admins, Mods, and Benevolent Dictators for Life: The Implicit Feudalism of Online Communities.

I expand upon this work and include an analysis about how open source software whose benefits are largely controlled by firms have specifically different benefits than those largely controlled by individual volunteer communities in my paper The Evolution of Open Source: Winners and losers in volunteer production

1 Like

P.S. This is a bit of a shameless plus and mods, please feel free to delete if it’s against forum policy but… I am a part-time graduate student and would love for the opportunity to publish some of my writing on the socio-economic relations of open source software production so if any folks in this community find some of my writing interesting or know of outlets who might be interested, please reach out :slight_smile:

These aren’t just cherrypicked cases for demonstrating how markets could solve many of the “Free Ridding” problems and Commons’ Tragedies in the maintenance of public goods.

I recommend watching this TED presentation for understanding the concept of how markets could be engineered for aligning incentives in all participants thus increasing their social welfare.

Markets do solve conflicts. If we were comparing economical systems with Engineering Optimization Methods, Free Markets would be the equivalent of the Monte Carlo Simulation method for finding the most optimal solution for a problem when there isn’t enough information for solving it directly with conventional analytical methods.

Just after the recent security breach of Log4J, many are just upset when knowing that most of the OSS used in critical security systems are just maintained by volunteers, raging about How is possible that software depends on a project thanklessly maintained by a random guy in Nebraska? is open source sustainable?

May we should start considering FOSS projects as for-profit enterprises because right now the digital society demands urgent solutions for the maintenance problems that are affecting the safety of Internet applications, jeopardizing the personal data and wealth of many citizens and institutions around the world.

I think I should clarify when I mentioned the cherry picked examples I was referring to the story of how free markets saved (parts of) NYC where in reality free markets were are core component of it’s downfall in the 70s.

I’m not sure this forum is the place where I would want to have a discussion on the merits and downfalls of free markets (and how free, enforced by who).

Regardless, I think firms taking greater control of the labor producing open source software has both benefits and harms that are not equally distributed across society which I detail in my paper.

I’m fully aware of this problem, when corporations exploit the innovations from independent developers without giving them any retribution back. An example of this abuse is documented in the way that Amazon Web Service just rippoff the code from the already licensed MongoDB package, just for launching a “fully MongoDB compatible” custom proprietary product, DocumentDB, from which AWZ charges users a premium license. As an OSS developer said once :

“if you give your secret sauce away for free, and it gets popular enough, cloud providers will inevitably spin up competitive services using your very own code against you.”

This only shows how companies have little respect for the developers hardwork, as they’re too greedy for taking advantage from them for free if they can. This problematic situation is what motivates me to develop solutions for developers that are suffering the abuse from companies just because they weren’t able to protect their work.

The current legal framework for protecting IP is just obsolete for the digital work, and causes more harm than good often favoring great corporations with huge legal litigant power. Independent developers just can’t afford the costs of initiating a legal process for denouncing companies when they violate the license terms of their software. Also the IP law only could reach a limited scope depending of the country’s legislations, making it worthless in international markets where countries like China or Rusia have little respect for the U.S. copyright law.

That’s what I’m proposing a Value Capuring approach, encouraging developers for creating value from their intellectual work. I’ve just learned that OSS developers have an already built Prestige that no one could taking it from them, and that Prestige suddenly has a market where is too valuable: DeFi applications. Wouldn’t be great that devs just use that platform for start earning income from their own work, without worring about how their code is used in other applications?

In the latest Sustain podcast, Ele Diakominchalis alludes to this.

1 Like

Another idea that can be incorporated for helping OSS maintainers comes from BOOSTO, which consists on fostering a collaboration agreement between Influencers and Developers. Influencers are specialized in reaching a large audience for promoting DApps, helping to communicate ideas and getting in touch with followers at social networks (which could be a full-time task), while sharing a commission revenue from each sale generated by the DApp as they monetize users fidelity with Boosto coins.

This shows how DAOs and Crypto Tokens solve a common issue that affects OSS developers when they try to raise funds for their projects, as many of them don’t have the networking power for reaching their contributors.

While this is a great and totally valid example of large corporations using their monopolistic power to usurp potential profits by smaller corporations (in this case MongoDB and elastic) I think we might be talking past each other here which is probably my fault as I just point to my paper but don’t actually summarize it.

In my paper, I show historically how the very nature of software developed by volunteer communities without the express goal to be offered as a product within a market has had a very different purpose than software developed by firms. As firms have invested more and more into FOSS, the actual nature, purpose, and benefits of most FOSS created has changed significantly from being tools that empowered individuals to complete certain types of tasks to tools whose purpose is mainly gating and arbitrating access to some other digital resource on behalf of allowing firms to profit from controlling that resource.

It’s with this argument that I would advocate against turning open-source developers into a firm of “one” (also known as gig workers or contractors). Firms have often utilized having greater access to capital and well-funded networks to exploit workers organized in this way. As I show in my paper, firms also will develop technologies with very specific purposes that are better for some than they are for others.

This has been an interesting discussion, and this contribution may be a bit late, but I just want to point out that the initial video (and I think at least some of the discussion about OSS sustainability through private funding of individual contributors) falls into the classic “tragedy of the commons” trap first posed by Garrett Hardin and long since discredited many times over.

Pundits like Hardin and John Stossel, and the people who write their checks, find it very notable to observe that shared resources are often abused by selfish individuals – and they quickly conclude that this “tragedy” is inevitable, that shared resources cannot be effectively managed, so it should all just be either privatized or regulated by the government (but mostly privatized).

It’s true that shared resources are subject to dilemmas but it’s entirely false that we only have governmental or privatized ways of coping with these dilemmas. When people claim that collective action is impossible (especially powerful people who stand to gain from further consolidation of power) ask instead whether it might just be hard.

When we understand that collective action to steward shared resources is hard, but not impossible, we can start honing in on useful questions.

Could there be better ways for individual developers to monetize their contributions in a market, as say the book Working in Public concludes as its primary proposal? Sure. Will this likely yield further inequities and sub-optimal outcomes and associated tragedies? You better believe it. WiP briefly acknowledges this and shrugs on without another moment of consideration.

Can there be other ways of designing institutional arrangements that cope with these dilemmas and yield better results? Also yes. Projects like Open Collective and people like Sumana Harihareswara are doing that work.

We’ve had no shortage of magical market thinking to date. Questions of institutional design are likely to be much more fruitful.