Rebel Governance: In Defense of the Common Sector

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by Grant A. Mincy

Life is pretty good here in the Volunteer State. As an East Tennessean I am particularly fond of the Great Smoky Mountains, our scruffy little city of Knoxville, a multitude of markets (including a rising craft-beer scene), and an array of state parks. My family and I are fond of camping, especially at Frozen Head State Park. It is our tradition to camp under hemlock, oak, and poplar, cook over embers, and play in the cool waters of Flat Fork.

As an instructor of natural and behavioral science at Pellissippi State Community College, it is nice to run into nature, sit, breathe, and enjoy her complexity. It recharges me for the classroom. In the halls of the academy, I work to cultivate the interests of students, to teach them science, describe what we know about how the world operates, to note the mysteries that still need to be solved and to instill a sense of wonder regarding the natural environment. Science is much more than methodology, it is a way to understand our place in the cosmos and thus the human condition.

State parks and the halls of higher education are just two examples of spaces that mean a lot to me and many other Tennesseans. Whether it is the solace of the park or the curiosity of the classroom, these institutions reflect a human desire to explore, labor, leisure, wonder, and create.

So, I am rather disturbed by the Request for Proposals posted on Aug. 11 to the Tennessee Department of General Services website. In a cost-saving effort, the Haslam Administration is looking to outsource management of public institutions (including parks, colleges, prisons, and National Guard armories) to the business sector.

Of course, the RFP should not be surprising. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam is just following modern conservative doctrine. Cutting spending and selling public lands and institutions to the highest bidder is sound economics. The plan is applauded by the political right as a benefit to taxpayers, with little or no reflection on the detriment done to public goods. On the other side of the aisle, Tennessee Democrats and the operating union UCW-CWA (which, full disclosure, I am a member of) are rallying on behalf of public workers. The idea is, the stronger the public sector, the better off is Tennessee labor. The Haslam plan is berated by the political left who have little or no understanding of the destructive nature of the state and its maintenance of public goods.

This false duality that says public goods can only be managed by either the state or private business fails to recognize that both approaches are authoritarian and overlook liberty as a praxis. We completely overlook the commons. Yet, the commons build the public arena. It is in this arena that debate, consensus, and adaptation can mold real governance.

I write this article in defense of the overlooked common sector. Equally overlooked is common property—land or space in which all members of a given community hold equal rights over said territory. There is no coercive body delegating property management or use, as in state territory, nor is there exclusive ownership given to an anointed individual or privileged group, as with private property. Common property is liberated from enclosure movements. This is not to say there is no governance of these resources. To the contrary, a highly ordered, decentralized, adaptive governance applies to common property.

Commons governance is slowly making a comeback. One poignant example is adaptive management of natural resources. Adaptive Collaborative Management is an increasingly popular method of conflict resolution developed to resolve complex problems requiring collective action.

Take the work of famed Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom. Ostrom, an economist and political scientist, challenged the idea that centralized authority, be it through government regulation or private property ownership, was necessary to successfully manage natural resources. In her landmark book, Governing the Commons, she demonstrated, under classical libertarian conditions (power equally distributed among individuals), that common property can be successfully managed by organized community members and user associations.

The common sector revisits the idea of (small d) democracy. Imagine a world where individuals, neighborhoods, communities, cities, etc. are engaged in the affairs around them. The common sector presents the idea that there is no need to look to vertical power structures to make decisions, but that we can look horizontally to one another to make decisions. This is our right to the commons. It is the liberty of the individual to cultivate his neighborhood, community, city, region, and so on. Individuals discover their place in the community, and are empowered to labor free of capital, market, or state restrictions.

As far as access to institutions goes, at the societal level, it is my belief that many services will be so sought after that the models that govern them will change. I will use academia as an example.

Education is one of the greatest undertakings of our society. Learning is a lifelong pursuit and an endless adventure. Education provides the instruction and tools necessary for people to reach their maximum potential. Education is much more than teaching to a test or preparing individuals for the workforce—it is paramount to the cultivation of society. Education works to enhance the natural capacities of individuals by developing their innate need for intellectual growth. The old motto still rings true: “Learners are not empty vessels waiting to be filled, but instead respond in different ways to the stream of knowledge and its current.”

When benefits such as these transcend the community, the community may find the institutions that provide them so critical to the social order that they will be removed from the cash nexus. “Public” institutions would truly be public, a common regime.

Commons governance is rebel governance. Liberty is no enemy of human labor. Our enemy is the calculated enclosure of our commons. υ

Grant A. Mincy is a senior fellow at the Center for a Stateless Society ( where he holds the Elinor Ostrom Chair in Environmental Studies and Commons Governance. He also blogs at In addition, Mincy is an associate editor of the Molinari Review and an Energy & Environment Advisory Council Member for the Our America Initiative.

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