How to Make Commons More Common
Organizations can use price segmentation and universal dividends to make their products more like common goods.
All goods and services (whether labeled “private,” “public” or “common”) lie on a spectrum ranging from least to most accessible. In this article, I’ll explore the possibility of moving goods toward greater accessibility.
For the purposes of this article, I define a common good as a good or service whose production can’t be improved by competition, but I recognize the existence of the above spectrum. I treat rivalry as orthogonal (and so include so-called “public goods”), and frame questions positively: in terms of access rather than excludability. The question I want to ask is “to what extent is it possible and advisable to replace competition with increased access?”
Competition drives innovation in many cases, but there are reasons it might not. The producer might have a natural monopoly. The good might be a natural resource or a creation left to the public. It might be a plan, idea, or piece of software that provides more value as a broad collaboration than a private possession. Even in competitive environments, access might be increased without diminishing the benefits of competition on the quality, quantity, or price of the good provided.
We’ll consider example goods with perceived utilities that vary widely or very little among people, and supplies that range from scarce to abundant. Throughout, we’ll contemplate ways to make goods more accessible.
Let’s imagine a superabundant type of mushroom that every person on Earth wants in exactly the same amount. Let’s imagine that the only limitation to people fulfilling their mushroom desires is their ability to pay for delivery.
Humanity appoints a single mushroom deliverer. The deliverer attempts to maximize utility through price segmentation. Those who can pay for mushroom delivery pay a little above cost, so that those who can’t pay can receive free delivery. This arrangement fits a societal awareness that those with ability or means (in this case, to collect mushrooms) can help those without.
In an alternative scenario, the global citizens sell the mushroom rights to multiple competing delivery companies — perhaps through a periodic auction. The income from the sales is set aside and distributed as a global universal dividend.
Competition might result in lower overall delivery costs. Tight competition might make price segmentation that subsidizes delivery for low-income recipients impossible, but the universal dividend might be an effective way to distribute the “fruits” of the commons in a different form.
Which approach is better?
The first approach might succeed in getting mushrooms to everyone regardless of their income, but it might fail if higher income buyers are unwilling to pay enough to subsidize lower income buyers, or delivery costs are too high. The second approach may fail to create a free mushroom price segment, but may still provide more people with mushrooms than the first.
A dividend might be especially useful in cases where not everyone can use the good, as we’ll explore below.
Let’s imagine a different type of mushroom to which 10% of the human population is allergic.
A dividend combined with price segmentation could offset the cost of mushroom purchases completely at the lowest price segment and partially at higher price segments. Allergic individuals could still receive the dividend. Now those in higher price segments are helping not only those who can’t afford delivery, but also compensating those who can’t eat them.
Maybe some people would vote against such a dividend, saying that the mushrooms are a want, not a need, or that alternatives exist. Some others might vote in favor of the dividend saying that those who can’t enjoy the mushrooms should be compensated for missing out. Possible values for the dividend range from zero to an amount so high that buyers are unwilling to compensate others. A buyer of mushrooms might be presented with a notice that reads “50% of the purchase price goes to deliver mushrooms to low-income individuals, 20% goes to compensate individuals with mushroom allergies, and 30% goes to cover the cost of your delivery.”
Imagine a third kind of mushroom that some people just don’t like. Should part of the revenue be used to pay for education in mushroom appreciation? Should a universal dividend be used to compensate those who don’t enjoy mushrooms as much as others? Maybe the answers to these questions depend on the existence of alternatives (see “Providing Alternatives,” below).
Let’s consider an open-source software library. The software is very useful to 100 software developers that know how to use it. It’s very easy for those developers to find the software, so the distribution cost is zero. We might say that the accessibility problem is solved, but should others be encouraged to learn how to use the software to increase its accessibility? Should those that don’t know how to use it directly be compensated?
Imagine a neighborhood park with a playground and stone animal sculptures for children to enjoy.
Not everyone in the world can use the park because not everyone can reach it. Should the park pay a dividend to everyone to make up for this exclusion?
Imagine the park fund pays rent to be distributed to global citizens. Imagine that several other properties in the neighborhood pay rent to the same destination, and those rents can be increased because of the presence of the park, so the park’s rent is subsidized. To cover the rest of the costs, the park fund operates a gift shop and a railroad that gives rides around the park.
Those living near the park receive both the global rent dividend and the enjoyment of the park (assuming they like it). If the park didn’t pay rent to humanity, its scope as a commons would be diminished, serving only the immediate area.
In the park example, the land the park occupies is a universal commons, while the operating park necessarily has a limited scope. Both the underlying rent and the park’s management are funded from the same source (local park-lovers). A universal dividend is appropriately paid from the rent portion. Unpacking layers like this can help identify different common goods so that each can be treated appropriately.
In the example of the competitive delivery of mushrooms, the mushrooms themselves are treated as a separate common good from the delivery service. The value of the mushrooms are appropriately distributed as a universal dividend, while the delivery service is treated as a private good (possibly modulated toward the more accessible side of the spectrum by price segmentation.)
A little more common
Even if an organization operates in a competitive market, it can make its goods a little more common without losing its edge. Price segmentation (student discounts, occasional free nights) can be a great option. Donating part of excess revenue to a universal dividend (see below) can move even the most exclusive private good towards the commons side.
To respect differences between people and freedom of choice while keeping utility high, we need to work to increase the number and variety of common goods. We want a future where quality of life is less dependent on physical circumstances like place of birth, language, location, or abilities.
Fortunately, there’s a lot of value in universal commons (like land) — if we can learn to treat them as such, and universal dividend contributions from many organizations put together can be huge. A universal dividend gives the widest range of alternatives to individuals to satisfy their own wants and needs.
Ideas to make goods more common
🔆 Make goods and services usable by people with a diverse range of hearing, movement, sight, and cognitive abilities. Make them work independently of language, location, or other person-to-person differences.
🔆 If a good or service excludes some people, provide alternatives.
🔆 Encourage your organization to open source its software.
🔆 Encourage your organization to release works into the public domain.
🔆 Use price segmentation to avoid excluding people because of cost.
🔆 Contribute a portion of profits to a universal dividend fund, like Hedge for Humanity.
🔆 Sell or donate houses, office buildings, farms, and other real estate to land trusts so they remain part of the commons forever. The broader the scope of the trust, the better. A global land trust paying a universal dividend is ideal.
🔆 Pay and treat employees better. Give them benefits. Treat each person as an end in themselves, not a means to an end.
🔆 Contribute to a matching fund — especially one that funds public goods, like Gitcoin.