Blog: "COVID-19: Finding common cause in a crisis" - Charlie Woods, SUII


Charlie Woods is EDAS's Policy and Practice
sub-group Chair and Director of the
Scottish Universities Insight Institute

It is something of an understatement to say that the Covid-19 pandemic is shaking everything up and 
will have an ongoing legacy. This is nothing new, the history of pandemics suggest they can have a significant and long lasting impact on society and the economy[1].

The immediate and longer term consequences of the current pandemic are, and are likely to be, largely negative. However, there are also some positive stories emerging from the upheaval and suffering. A recent article[2]highlights some of the many initiatives around the world where communities and groups are coming together to organize themselves and offer support and help to others. It will be interesting to see how many seeds are planted during the crisis that will continue to bear fruit once it has passed.

Many of these projects are a form of ‘commons’ - neither state or market led - a way of organization that waned with the enclosure of land and the development of more private property (and state regulated) based economic systems.

However, commons haven’t disappeared completely, there are still some notable and longstanding examples, such as cattle herders in the Alps, along with some newer models of commons based peer production, such as that involved in Linux open source software, Wikipedia or the Firefox browser.

Alongside commons based models these has been increasing attention recently on other approaches, which can operate in market based economies, yet broaden stakeholder involvement. These include cooperatives, employee ownership, community wealth building and ‘B-corps’. The wider inclusiveness of these types of organisations give more people a stake in the organisation and an incentive to be innovative and improve performance.

A commons approach is a shared endeavor to collectively develop, organize and manage resources. The often cited risk with this approach is that it results in what is known as the ‘tragedy of the commons’[3]. Where this occurs insufficient or ineffective communication and management results in overuse and degradation of resources. This results from individual short term advantage, or fear of loss overwhelming the wider collective (and eventually individual) good in a version of the ‘prisoners dilemma’[4].

Private property rights are seen as one answer to this ‘tragedy’. The argument being that an owner will look after their own property, and they will have an incentive to invest, innovate and improve. The risk with this approach is that private owners might well ignore ‘externalities’ that fall onto the wider society, such as the costs of pollution and might focus on short term returns at the expense of stewardship for future generations. A further consequence of this approach is that returns on investment tend to become more concentrated among property owners with society becoming more unequal and less ‘inclusive’.

Perhaps ‘externalities’ were seen as less of an issue when the earth’s resources and capacity for waste appeared to be inexhaustible – we now know this is very far from the case as current developed country ways of living consume and despoil the resources of multiple planets.

‘Tragedies and externalities’ are both types of collective action problems, where social and private interests are not aligned. Something similar is observed in the natural world, when an animal seeking relative advantage can undermine the common good.[5] However, humans have the ability to communicate, reason and plan to overcome these types of problems. Humankind’s capacity to cooperate is critical to solving these problems. Although history is littered with examples of societies that have been unable to sustain themselves as a result of a failure to do this.[6]  

The work of Nobel Prize winning economist Elinor Ostrom[7]offers guidance for managing a commons. From widespread study of different commons, she identified a number of key features, including, clear communication, user defined rules, graduated sanctions where rules are broken and low cost dispute resolution processes.

In market based economies democratically agreed laws, regulation and taxes, alongside more informal social norms, are all used to address externalities and mediate the interests of the individual and society.

The relationship between the private and the social is a fine balance - the current ‘liberate’ protests in the US are a case in point. The balance varies between cultures, driven by history, environment and philosophy. This is highlighted by Julian Baggini in his review of different world philosophies[8] - from the eastern emphasis on the harmony of society to the western focus on individual liberty. He concluded that: “Values of autonomy, harmony, community and individuality all have a legitimacy but there is no way to live that allows us to maximise all of them. There is more than one way for humans to flourish and trade-offs are inevitable.”

Managing these trade-offs requires cooperation and understanding, which is hard enough where there are shared values. At a global level it’s much harder, yet it is even more critical as we wrestle with issues like Covid-19 and the climate emergency. Although written almost 400 years ago ‘no man is an island’ has never seemed more apt, with perhaps the amendment of one word!

When multi-national co-operation works, as with the Montreal Accord on CFCs, it can be transformative. However, achievements of this scale are few and far between and hard to pull off, particularly when short term domestic political pressures bear down on decision makers.

What will be the impact of the Covid pandemic on cooperation to solve collective problems? A paper written last year Alex Evans[9]explored what’s needed to rebuild political common ground. This suggests it could go one of two ways. On the one hand there is the danger that it could exacerbate polarisation and division within and between countries, which have been fueled by rising inequality, a breakdown in trust etc. On the other he offers the hope that: “there is also ample historical precedent to show that periods of crisis and turbulence can provide highly fertile ground for non zero-sum cooperation, normative renewal, and widely shared feelings of common identity and common purpose.”

The pandemic has left many of us feeling somewhat disorientated. Acknowledging that we are at a crossroads and learning the lessons from positive examples of common endeavor might be the first steps in charting a way forward that turns hope into reality.

[1] A recent study for the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, which looked at the aftermath of fifteen pandemics since the 14th century, concluded that the macroeconomic impacts persisted for around 40 years.
European Parliament Briefing on the economic impact of pandemics
[3] Garrett Hardin - The Tragedy of the Commons (1968)
[4]  ‘a game … that shows why two completely rational individuals might not cooperate, even if it appears that it is in their best interests to do so.’
[5] A good example of this is the male peacock’s tail, which helps each individual attract a mate and thus ensures the passing on of his genes, but makes the species as a whole more vulnerable to predators. Robert Frank - The Darwin Economy (2011) Princeton University Press.
[6] Jared Diamond - Collapse (2005) Penguin
[7] Elinor Ostrom - Governing The Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (1990) Cambridge University Press.
[8]“How the world thinks” – Julian Baggini (2018)

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