Wednesday, May 27, 2009

TIMN table details: learning that tribes are about “club goods” — and rethinking “collective goods”

[UPDATE — August 11, 2013: Just a quick note to put down a marker for a new idea that may eventually deserve its own post. It occurs to me that “member goods” might be a more appropriate term than “club goods” for getting at what this post is about. Member is a broader, more inclusive term than club; families, clans, tribes, and other such groupings, including clubs and teams, consist of members. I don’t find, using Google, that anyone else has fielded the term. But it seems better than the alternatives I’ve tried so far (e.g., club goods, household goods). If sensible, then that means the corresponding line in my TIMN table should distinguish between member goods, public goods, private goods, and common or commons goods.]

This post concerns just one row in the TIMN table displayed in my prior post: the row about the “Key Product” for each TIMN form. Since I’m not an economist and not much interested in the production of goods, I’ve regarded that row as necessary but also boring — yet perplexing too, as indicated by question marks with the entries under the Tribes and Networks columns.

Figuring out what goes in that row has just become a lot more interesting.

Thanks to an unusual reference (and link) within a posting at the Zero Intelligence Agents blog by Drew Conway, I’ve learned about a kind of collective good known as “club goods” — where something is held in common for members, but everyone else can be excluded, unlike the case with a true commons. I knew about the concept of “clubs” and have regarded them as mini-tribes or mini-clans, worthy of note but not elevation in the TIMN framework. But this concept of club goods is another matter; it’s serendipitously intriguing, especially for improving that TIMN table.

As the “Key Product” of Tribes, the table presently lists “shared gifts” (an earlier version listed “household goods”). I now see that “club goods” would be a better entry. Indeed, not only reciprocal gift-giving and household goods, but also arranged marriages, dowries and brideprices, food stores, feasts, and a lot of other tribal/clan matters fit readily under the club-goods category.

The lineage of this concept traces back to a seminal paper by James Buchanan, “An Economic Theory of Clubs” (1965). What is extra-interesting, however, is the adjacent table about club goods that depicts its relationship to other kinds of goods. The table — a screen-grab (click to enlarge) — is from an article at Wikipedia, but appears to come from a similar table classifying types of economic goods posted at EconPort, (and may come originally from an economics textbook by Greg Mankiw).

What a clear, concise table! And it does more than just point me to club goods.

The existing entries for the Key Product under the Institutions and Markets columns — “public goods” and “private goods” respectively — remain correct. But the adjacent table, plus other writings I’ve perused in recent months, suggest that the entry under Networks should be revised. It presently says “collective goods.” That’s not necessarily wrong — it conveys the right spirit — but it is too broad, too indefinite. Club goods and public goods are often collective goods. So too are goods called “common goods” and “common-pool resources” — also known simply as “the commons.”

This latter set of goods — I prefer the less-used term “commons goods” for it — may be what most pertains to the Network cell of the TIMN table. Turning to that term would bring that entry, and thus the table, better into line with those thinkers who believe that the future belongs to the rise of a peer-produced, peer-governed information commons (e.g., Yochai Benkler, David Bollier), who are working to identify better organizational designs for managing common-pool resources (e.g., Elinor Ostrom), and who are building online endeavors on behalf of the commons (e.g., P2P Foundation, Cooperation Commons, The Commoner). Making this change would thus also respond to criticisms that I neglected to notice the rising importance of the commons and its theorists in my cyberocracy paper (2008).

So, if I were to repost the entire TIMN table today, it would be with those revisions about club goods and commons goods. But that may not be the end of the story. Commons goods are not specific to only that one cell in the TIMN table. Tribes often speak in terms of commons goods; at least that’s true for many indigenous-peoples organizations. Some public goods are tantamount to commons goods. Even market actors — notwithstanding the private sector’s historic disrepute in leftist circles for enclosing the ancient commons and converting it into private property — depend on promoting particular kinds of common goods, such as common standards for transportation, communications, and power.

Furthermore, there are still some other ideas on the rise. A popular notion among some policy analysts and activists is “global public goods” — but it may be too resonant with global institutions to be the best entry for this TIMN table. Potentially more interesting may be the notion of a global ecumene. Indeed, the opposite of the club (and being clubby) is not so much the commons as the ecumene (and being ecumenical). Perhaps “ecumene goods” or “ecumenic goods” would make for a sensible entry eventually.

Once again, this is a new area and a new set of concepts for me. I am open to suggestions and further discussions. Funny how one row in a table may become so pivotal. Funny too how roaming around the blogosphere can lead to insights missed through deliberate scholarly reading.


Jay Taber said...

Many of your observations are currently playing out at the UN and other state-centric institutions, where indigenous governments are negotiating with states over compliance with new human rights regime initiatives that respect economic, social, and political forms that precede and underlay states and markets. Intellectual property rights of indigenous nations regarding medicinal use of forests, to which they hold inherent title, is one example. Indigenous governance and natural resource management, at odds with such UN schemes as carbon market trading, is another.

Michel Bauwens said...

Dear David,

Thank you for your clarifications. I think an important aspect is this. Any production of a good, even private goods, needs to be designed, and such design is not fundamentally different from designing immaterial goods such as knowledge or software. Hence, what Benkler calls commons-based peer production is now also being applied to physical goods (see Hence, you can imagine businesses producing goods for the market, yet working together with open design communities. In this way, the network form influences and works together with market institutions. Furthermore, because of the distribution of the means of production, i.e. machines becoming more flexible, more distiributed and miniaturiarized, the organization of the market itself, becomes more networked than before.

Michel Bauwens,

mark said...

The math made my head spin in the "club goods" paper but I think it might be fruitful to look at some of the 19th century Farmer's Alliance cooperatives and the never enacted Subtreasury plan for how such a system might "scale up".