The problem with communal ownership - community flowers in Brixton

That private property is theft is a mantra well known to us all. That there has to be a management system for property is even more obvious. That private property, even if we accept the first contention, is the best solution to the requirement is something all too many don’t wish to acknowledge. Yet it is true, as this about community flowers in Brixton tells us:

A flower row has erupted on the streets of Brixton after a community grower accused their neighbours of stealing blooms planted by a community group.

The problem? There’s no enforcement of property rights going on.

The original note poster responded, explaining that the lupins and geraniums were planted as part of a local scheme called Our Streets, in which members of the local community in south London "adopt" a tree to water and plant flowers under.

They added that the flowers have now been dug up and "moved elsewhere".

The neighbour who first replied seemed intent on having the last word, and penned: "Helpful to know that the flowers were part of a community project. However, if that was the case, it was very misleading to refer to them as 'my' flowers.

One amusement is that this is being done with Post-It notes rather than on Twitter. However, the underlying problem is a common one. For we’re in Tragedy of the Commons territory here.

There has to be some management system. Can be private ownership, a capitalist solution. Can be regulatory, a socialist one. As Hardin pointed out, which will work best depends upon the specifics of the item and situation. Elinor Ostrom took us further in our understanding, community self-regulation can indeed work. But the emphasis there is upon “can”.

Ostrom started from the sensible observation that there are commons which do survive without regulatory or private solutions. So, how do they work then? The obvious corollary to which is that those that don’t so work have already disappeared. Thus we cannot take Ostrom’s work as an insistence that community self-regulation will always work - only that sometimes it does.

As, sometimes it doesn’t. Ostrom’s own finding being that when we start to talk of groups bigger than a few thousand, perhaps 3,000 people at the top end, then the community bonds aren’t going to be strong enough for them to be binding on behaviour. The ability to free ride without significant cost from that community will be too great.

How many walk the garden streets of Brixton? There is our problem, isn’t it?

We’re entirely pragmatists around here. We’ve no great ideological attachment to specific forms of property management. We agree that at times the regulatory, governmental, solution is the one that’s going to work. So also that the vast majority of the time it’s going to be private ownership. Which is dependent upon the details. We even agree that this communal and undefined system will indeed work. But, from observation, only in a community small enough for it to do so. Which isn’t, sadly for the romantics about human nature, a useful description of most communities in the modern world.