May 2004, Presented at the bi-annual conference of the Association of Cultural Economics at Chicago, June 3-5 2004.
The custom in economics is to distinguish private from public, or collective, goods, and to leave it at that. The market (or the private sphere) is supposed to take care of the former and the government (or the public sphere) of the latter (but not in all cases: economists like to show that the market may do better in providing for some public goods such as light towers and clean air). Yet, what gets squeezed out in the juxtaposition of the private versus the public is arguably the most important class of goods of all, that is, the class of common goods, or the goods that are shared by a group of people in consumption and possession. I would like to suggest that art can be a private good, may be a collective good in some instances but is foremost a common good.
Taking common goods into account makes all the difference. The dominant role of common goods in our lives can account for cooperative behavior, altruistic actions, loyalty, for the prevalence of trust, for a sense of social responsibility, for the role of the so-called third sphere, for the way the arts function; it takes care furthermore of the free-riding problem and the phenomenon of externalities to some degree.
The discussion on whether art is a public good or not is all too familiar. Tyler Cowen, Grampp and Frey, among others, will stress the private character of art forms. This is the case when people are willing to pay for the property right over a piece of art, or for the delivery of a service as by means of a performance. Artists or their managers supply the art and private parties are willing to pay for it. That way art is no different from other private goods.
Since so much art does not appear to do well in a normal market and since governments appear to be willing to subsidize certain art forms —some more than others–, economists have been deliberating its public character. This deliberation has not gone very smoothly as art rarely qualifies as a pure public good. It would if no people can be excluded from its consumption (non-excludability) and if its consumption by one does not compete with its consumption by another (non-rivalry). Maybe cultural heritage comes close but even there doubts arise because of the cultural capital required to enjoy and appreciate cultural heritage. People, after all, can be excluded from accumulated cultural capital, for example by not getting access to educational institutions. Museum and performances are even more dubious because when too many others gain entrance, you and I may be left outside. Excluded are furthermore those who do not have the cultural capacity (i.e. cultural capital) to appreciate musea and performances.
Because the public nature of art is somewhat in doubt, and with that the justification of public subsidies, economists like Hans Abbing concentrate on the externalities of art consumption. One such external effect is that others will benefit when I go the theatre or visit a museum. This may seem forced at first —after all who cares that I enjoy theatre–but if we think of option value and bequest value, the point could be that because visits to the theatre and the museums reconfirm their raison d’etre, they may stimulate others to visit as well, and so increase their option and bequest values. We call these effects externalities because they do not get priced. Governments may decide to make good for them and award the theatres and museums subsidies for the option and bequest values that cannot be realized in the market. I would like to show that these externalities reflect the existence of a common good, as well as a commons.
As soon as we consider art a common good, by way of a a third alternative, its externalities receive another meaning, and we can account for various peculiar patterns and phenomenon that characterize the arts worlds, such as the sacrifices so many artists make without a reasonable chance of a decent return, and its social character. To show how art can be perceived a common good, I will first show how a conversation is a good example of a common good and will continue by pursuing the metaphor “art is a conversation”.
Goods are those tangibles and intangibles that have value for people and for which the possession and enjoyment of them, they would be willing to sacrifice resources (cf Klamer 2003a)
Private goods are goods held in private ownership. The right of ownership gives the right to exclude others from enjoying the fruits of the goods and, when a market exist for the good, to transfer the ownership of the good to others. The ownership can be shared in the sense that several individuals have a claim to the ownership. The ownership is well defined legally in the sense that a court of law should be able to determine what is whose.
Collective or public goods are goods held in ownership by a collective, usually a state or another political entity. Their possession has a legal status. They are marked by non-rivalry in consumption and non-excludability. Their benefits are quasi universal in terms of countries, people and generations. Global public goods benefit humanity in its entirety.
Common goods are shared by a group of people without a clear legal definition of ownership. In the rule no single person or legal identity can claim ownership of a common good. The members of the group enjoy the fruits of their common good; they cannot exclude other members but usually exclude non-members. Rivalry is conceivable both inside and outside the group.
The (creative) commons are a source, like an ongoing conversation out there. People can participate in it and draw benefits from it but how and to what extent depends on the conditions of participation (or of membership).
I will take a conversation as example of a common good because I want to suggest later that art is well understood as conversation and hence as a common good. The example makes it also easier to conceptualize the commons as an entity that is related but distinct from the common good. Accordingly the task is here to determine a conversation as a good, and a common good at that.
Say I am this Robinson Crusoe figure on an island, all by myself, trying to survive. Then another person happens to strand on the island. Even though we do not speak the same language we quickly develop a language that we both understand so that we can communicate. After some time we share feelings, discuss what needs to be done and so on. I am enjoying the company and appreciate the ability of having a conversation with another person. I presume he does so as well.
What does the companionship mean to me? When this person does not help me in adding to the amount of goods for my consumption —he may put in some work but has to eat and needs a place to stay, too —I may still decide that I am better off with his presence because of the possibility of having a conversation with someone. I may even come to that conclusion in case that the amount of goods available for my consumption actually declines. I gladly give up some bread and meat in exchange for the conversation.
The bread and meat are private goods in the sense that I raised the sheep and planted, harvested, and milled the grain. Those goods are mine and it is my decision to share them with this Friday character. If he were to grab them without asking I might get angry and may throw him off the island. The conversation that he and I are having is another matter. For it is ours; we share the conversation. It is a joint production. He makes an effort and so do I. A conversation in which he does not participate is not the same as one in which he is paying attention to what I am saying, responds and contributes himself by telling me things. The more effort we both put into our conversation, the better I will feel, and the better he most likely will feel as well. (I find myself whistling again while walking along the beach and catch myself looking forward to the evening’s meal because of the conversation we will be having.) It matters to me that he enjoys the conversation, too. We do not only produce the conversation together, we also “consume” it together. Its enjoyment is mutual. Our conversation is what he and I have in common. It is a common good.
Maybe it sounds strange to call a conversation a good at all. From an economic point of view, however, it is not all that different from a good like bread. A conversation requires the input of time, effort and human and social capital. A conversation does not come about effortlessly. It is not free either. Even if the direct costs are zero, there will be opportunity costs. And like the bread the conversation gives me satisfaction. The difference is that the conversation cannot be a private good in the sense that I can claim ownership of it. I cannot claim that the conversation is mine and exclude others, including Friday, from enjoying it. A conversation is not divisible. I cannot say: “this part is mine and that is yours, I give you this for that.” A conversation cannot be exchanged.
A conversation is not a public good either. A pure public good, you may recall, is both indivisible — when you and I are the public I cannot consume it without your consuming it as well — and non-rivalrous — my consumption of the good can not go at the expense of your consumption. Although a conversation cannot be split up and although I cannot have the conversation by excluding Friday, Friday and I can easily exclude the remainder of the public from our conversation; to preserve its special character we most likely would do so if only there were other people around. Our conversation is between him and me; it is ours. Maybe I will give it up for another conversation when the occasion presents itself. In that case I will exclude Friday. Conversations have rivalry and exclusion written all over them. A conversation, therefore, is a good that does accord neither with the class of private goods nor with that of public goods. It is a common good. Friday and I jointly are in its possession.
A conversation is a good in the sense that having one has value. Someone who is stranded on another island not far from mine and is left alone for his entire stay, may envy me for having had one when he hears about it after our rescue. The good comes in different qualities, of course. A conversation with a lover will have a different quality from one with a stranger. A conversation with a colleague can go deeper and can be more intense than one with an outsider. And the participants may not benefit equally from the conversation. I may get more out of a conversation than my partner. I may be fascinated with the phenomenon of the wild man and so will get one kick after another from talking with Friday whereas he may find my talk mainly strange and incomprehensible. Participants may put in different efforts and therefore get something different out of their conversation. It remains a common good, though, as no party can appropriate it entirely or exclude the other.
Note that this common good is different from the common goods in the standard economic discussions. For example, the free rider problem does not apply. The point is important since common goods loose their footing in the economic analysis because of that problem. When one party shirks, as by pretending to be in the conversation while being with his thoughts somewhere else, the conversation will be different because of it and will have less value than a conversation to which all parties contribute. When there are more than two parties involved, one party can shirk and let the others do the work. When Friday and I are a conversation, you may want to join in. Imagine we let you in and you subsequently shirk by not contributing anything yourself. Apart from what we will think of your passivity, you will benefit differently from the conversation than we do, if your benefit at all. You may gain some information, some insight maybe, but you will not partake in the conversation and therefore it will not be . You can only a conversation by partaking in it. (Of course, you can exploit a conversation that others are having, drawing gainful information from it, but then you cannot go home and tell your partner about this wonderful conversation you had.)
Another difference with respect to economic goods such as bread is that consumption of a common good does not necessarily decrease its value but can add to it. The more time Friday and I spend conversing, the more we are likely to enjoy our conversation. Converse frequently but lightly and you have “companionship”. Converse a great deal and you a relationship. Converse more and you friendship>. Converse even more, and you will love. Or not. People may also grow bored with each other. One way out of this conundrum is to stipulate that a conversation is a good whose value evolves. Each effort, or lack thereof, will change its value, even if in a minuscule way. The conversation as a good differs from the one we were yesterday because of what has happened in between. In short, the consumption of a common good is also its production.
This also deals with the phenomenon of externalities. When I participate in a conversation, not only I benefit but others involved in the conversation do as well. But these external effects do not evaporate into air, or are lodged in the heads of others, as we usually think about external effects, but they result in added value of a common good, our conversation, that is. We all benefit from that. So the external effect that my participation generates does not remain external to my private sphere, but becomes an effect on something that I have in common with others. .
Having tried to make plausible that a conversation is a good and a common good at that, I will turn to the idea that art is a conversation, and hence a common good.
When I buy a painting, I get its property right, that is, it is up to me what I will do with it. I may have bought it for its colors or simply I like what it depicts. But if I were an art lover, I probably acquired it also for its artistic values. If it were a Jan Steen, I surely expect visitors to my house to be impressed. If it were a Cucchi, people who know something about the art scene of the early eighties will be impressed. The enjoyment that I derive from having the painting, therefore, is not a purely private affair. I share part of the painting, the context in which it is being discussed, valued and appreciated, with others. I call that context the conversation (see Klamer 2004). Conversation stands for the shared literature, knowledge, communications in various forms as well as the company of people that do sharing.
“Art is a conversation” is a metaphor; it points at the phenomenon that a piece of art exists as such only if it is recognized in the conversation of art. People may play music and paint what they like, in order to qualify as artists and their work as art they need to be in the conversation of art somehow. Having a degree from an art academy may help as does a contract with a gallery or a government subsidy.
When art is a conversation, art, at least certain of its aspects, is a common good. This is no news to sociologists like Howard Becker who always considered art a social activity that takes place in a particular world (cf Becker 19*). But when we consider the common good in an economic context interesting insights follow.
On the basis of the example of the conversation above we note the following characteristics:
The common good aspect of theatre is maybe even clearer. A theatre company that stages Hamlet of Shakespeare contributes to the ongoing conversation about theatre in general and Shakepeare’s Hamlet in particular. Its play has no meaning in isolation and the company will take into account other readings of the play, especially if it wants to be recognized in the conversation. Visitors of the play also benefit from the common good as represented by the conversation about Shakespeare and contribute to it as well by giving it their attention and helping to finance it.
Or take the producers of funky music. There music will only have a play when there is a setting appreciating it. If they were out in nowhere, in a rural community say, they do not stand much of a chance. If they were to move to New York they would enjoy the common good of a scene in which funky music is produced, played and paid attention to.
And here comes an important point, artists like funky musicians, performance artists, classical musicians, derive status and respect from sharing the conversation about their art. Once you are in, you are a serious musician, a performance artist; others call you so and you can introduce yourself as such. But you do not get such a status or respect just like that. The way most of these conversations work is that you have to make sacrifices, put in time, do the work, in order to be recognized. Contributing and giving to the community is what Richard Sennett identifies as the most effective way of earning respect. And because the artistic community is especially designed that way, a serious competition takes place among artists about who sacrifices most.
Accordingly, when in the conventional neoclassical view artists who forsake an income in order to do their art work, seem selfless in an unaccountable way, the identification of art as a common good makes us realize that they gain a common good with their sacrifices. In exchange for their generous gifts they gain membership and status as an artist, and that is apparently worth a great deal.
Abbing (1992) speaks here of reciprocal external and with get comes close to what I am arguing here. “In case of a reciprocal effect there is a chain reaction which, as it were, comes back to the initiator of the initial effect” (ibid, p. 2). I would argue that these reciprocal effects are pervasive in the world of the arts, and not only there. You might say that they define that world and determine what it is to be an artist.
Recall also that free riding makes little sense in case of a common good like a conversation. When participants do not contribute, they risk loosing status, respect and ultimately membership.
It is important to distinguish common goods and the commons. The commons are out there, a common resource that people can appropriate as a common good by participating in and contributing to it.
Having a conversation in common is having a good that generates values of various kinds. But a conversation can also be a resource regardless of whether a particular person makes use it or not. The resource has option value. Other terms uses are a common pool resource, or a creative commons as in case of the arts (Ramello 2003). This common source is a commons, like the pasture that serves the herds of the local community in Hardin’s famous example.
Accordingly a painting has value partly because it shares with other paintings the commons of the arts. The commons of the art, that is, the institutions and the conversations that constitute the worlds of the arts, are the resource that feeds and informs the value of the painting. Whether I listen to music by Pink Floyd, watch a Shakespeare play or a French movie I benefit from others who like the very same music, theatre and movies. The arts are common goods in the sense that they are at least partially consumed and owned in common with a more or less well-defined group of people. The commonness of a private good that I am consuming contributes to its enjoyment (or, if I have reason to dislike the commoners, decrease it).
With a commons for their work, artists have a distinct advantage over the artists who do not have one. If it is not there for them, they will have to create it in order to sustain their work and get recognized.
Lohman (1992: 58) points out that the concept of the commons contains the Greek term koinonia. He cites M.I Findley who has specified five characteristics for koinonia:
- Participation must be free and uncoerced;
- Participants must share a common purpose, whether minor or major, long term or short term;
- Participants must have something in common that they share such as jointly held resources, a collection of precious objects, or a repertory of shared actions;
- Participation involves philia (a sense of mutuality, often inadequately translated as friendship); and
- Social relations must be characterized by dikiaon (fairness).— Lohman (1992: 58-59)
All these characteristics appear to apply quite well to the commons of an artistic conversation. The artists are free to participate (1), those who participate share the objective of furthering the case for their art form (2) and share things like an (usually) informal association, coverage in certain media, and a tradition as laid down in art-historical accounts; they will care for each other in some way or another (4) and within the arts the norm is to be fair in dealing with other participants (5).
Like in the case of the conversation as a good, using the conversation as a common pool resource adds to its value rather than that it depletes it. When artists submit their work to the conversation, they hope for feedback. Any reaction is their gain. Yet their work is also a contribution to the commons in the sense that it may further the conversation. The curious principle is here that the more they I gain in terms of responses and the like, the more of a contribution their work probably has made. The value of this commons will decrease by neglect and not by usage.
Discussions of common goods in economics are quite rare. When you look for it, you certainly will end up in the field of environmental economics to get the standard treatment. The exception is the article by James Buchanan on club goods (1965) and the literature that that article generated. Club goods are goods that are shared by people who usually are organized as clubs in order to manage their common goods. Buchanan’s favorite example is the swimming pool. It is a kind of public good but only for a limited number of people. Everyone in the neighborhood benefits from its presence. But even if we were to define the public to that neighborhood, the swimming pool still would not be a pure public good as it is easy to exclude people and keep them from using the pool, for example by charging users. One solution is that those interested in the pool organize themselves in the form of a club and to award ownership to that club. The swimming pool is then a common good for the members of the club. They benefit from having a pool in their neighborhood.
The example actually goes to show that pure public goods are rare. The question is what the relevant public is. In case of a good like world peace the public would be everyone. But usually the public is limited and restricted to the inhabitants of a nation. From the universal perspective national defense, the most common example of a public good, is a club good, where the club comprises the citizens of the nation. Their national defense serves them but not their neighbors. They pay for it and they “enjoy” its presence. Most public goods, therefore, are common goods: they are jointly owned by a limited and usually well-defined number of people, excluding others.
But these examples cover only a very small subsection of the common goods that people own. I do not only have (good) conversations in common with others, share a common conversation with my colleagues, but I also “have” friendships, a family life, a “country”, national pride, a pretty nice town where I live with a few pretty restaurants, all of which are goods that I have in common with others. Friendship is the obvious example. I a few friends; our friendship is important to me. I made an effort for as did my friends. I benefit from them when I need company or need a check on my life. Friendships are valuable to me. They are not private goods, though, as I cannot own them personally. I cannot buy a friendship (hey, want to buy one from me?) Friendships are certainly no public goods as the point of friendship is the exclusion of the public. Friendships are common goods. As are all relationships that I am having.
Who owns the commons? Friday and I owned our conversation as its sole producers and producers. But who owns the conversation of the arts The answer probably is the community of artists, art critics and art lovers and everyone else who has a stake in it. They are the “members” and can claim that the conversation is theirs. Together they can deliberate whether a contribution does or does not belong. But not all its members are equal, and some will have a more developed sense of ownership. They usually will express this in their actions by taking on specific tasks like organizing exhibitions and performances, serving on the board of an artistic organization, publishing books or editing a website devoted to their conversation.
The government and its laws have only limited grip on common ownership. It is, for example, hard to establish property rights when things are in common. I may be able to sue Friday if he abuses some confidentiality that we agreed upon but I cannot claim our conversation from him. If I would, the conversation would be gone. The law applies to aspects of my family life. My wife, for example, can sue me if I were to hit her. But the sense of ownership here is moral rather than legal. The law does not determine that my family is mine; it is a feeling that I share with the members of my family, and that gets reinforced by the way others treat us as a family. I will meet disapproval when I disown my family, beat my wife or shrink away from my responsibilities towards family.
Ramello (2003) stressed the problem of enforcing copyrights in case of a common. In an interesting analysis that has many parallels with the discussion presented here (although he does not distinguish common goods from the commons), he shows that the enforcement of copyrights may in the end devalue the commons and so hurt everyone involved.
The sense of common ownership is critical for the way we treat a good. Take the street outside. It is said to be a public good. All citizens can use it as they please. When does the abuse start? When do people start littering the streets with wrappings and cigarette buds? The answer depends on how we define the “us” in “us versus them.” When I consider the street mine as well, that is, a good that I have in common with my fellow citizens, I think twice before littering. After all, it is my street and I am not accustomed to littering my own space. But do I sense that the street is “theirs”, of “those” people of the government, I will litter as long as I do not get caught and fined. Free riding, therefore, occurs when there is a lack in the sense of responsibility, which is the result of a lack of sense of moral ownership.
Like Buchanan’s notion of the club good, the common good points to the concept of membership. The co-owners of the common good could be considered members of the club. Michael Waltzer advances in the Spheres of Justicemembership as a primary social good. “The primary good that we distribute to another is membership in some human community. And what we do with regard to membership structures all our distributive choices: it determines with whom we make those choices, from whom we require obedience and collect taxes, to whom we allocate goods and services (p. 31)”. Waltzer thinks here of membership of a national “club”. Foreigners are strangers since they are non-members. Members enjoy all kinds of privileges. Members of powerful countries benefit from their membership when they are in trouble outside their country. An average American who is taking hostage in Columbia, is a great deal luckier than a Bengali person who is taken hostage. Membership is a common good that is the product of a commons. It is worth a great deal, and sometimes we have to make a major effort to secure a membership.
Waltzer points out that crucial for a membership is the way in which is decided who can be a member or not. A great deal depends again on the sense of ownership. He suggests three distinctive analogies, that of neighborhoods, that of clubs, and that of families. In case of neighborhoods membership is open to anyone who is able to purchase or rent a place in the neighborhood. There usually is not an admissions procedure. The neighborhood is an informal arrangement. A club is more organized and most clubs make their admission policy explicit. The members decide who is to become a member and who is not. Clubs differ, of course, as to their admission policies. They all make clear who is in and who is out. The family has members by birth. Members of your family do not choose you as a member, at least not usually so. You can not quit a family just like that but you can build on a new one by marrying someone of another family. Societies combine the three arrangements. Foreigners can move in but maybe subjected to admission procedures. Once a Dutchman or a Canadian, and you will be marked for the rest of your life. Even if you denounce your nationality you always remain Dutch or Canadian by birth. The procedures for acquiring and surrendering membership matter for the quality of the commons and that of the common goods that people derive from the commons. Few people are willing to sacrifice their lives for their neighborhood or their club, but quite a few will be willing to do so for their family and their nation. Apparently the membership of the latter two institutions, a common good, has a far greater meaning to them than the other memberships.
Listen to economists and you start to believe that we all are selfish people who are always out for personal gain. Even the warm, compassionate person turns in their conversations into someone who is simply incorporating the utility into her own and subsequently tries to maximize her personal utility, just like every other normal egoistic person. But that is not how I experience the behavior of people. Most normal people I know are trying to do good; they want to be social, compassionate, considerate even when they look for a good bargain in the basement store or negotiate for a higher salary. Just like Adam Smith noted in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, people tend to act out of sympathy for other people. From a standard economic perspective cooperative and compassionate behavior is an anomaly that is hard to account for. You are made to think that such behavior is exceptional. But it is not. The reason is the commonness of common goods and the dominant role that common goods have in the pursuit of happiness.
The problem is that in an economic perspective you get stuck with the two categories of private and public goods. That is why you quickly come to think of free riding as individuals are presumable only motivated if they can acquire or enjoy private goods. This make sense in some cases. Herdsman are apparently inclined to overgraze the common grazing ground and factory owners are inclined to pollute the air when they get the chance. Yet there are so many other cases. Scientists, for example, contribute left, right and center to the common knowledge that constitutes their science. Artists go out of their way, give up income and time, voluntarily organize artistic events, and help other artists out with little income to count for. The same citizens who are throwing thoughtlessly chewing gum on the public road (causing a major headache for the cleaning people) are willing to sacrifice their life for their country. What accounts for the difference?
One factor is ownership. The more intense someone experiences the ownership of a common good, the more willing he or she is to take responsibility for that good. Although I share ownership of my yard with my wife, I will take charge of raking the leaves and things like that. I may try to free ride, but oh my, will I know it if I do. The owner is to contribute to the commons. When artists sees the art in which they participate as theirs, they will do more to sustain the conversation that if they simply try to benefit from what others have realized already. Even though I, as a citizen, also share in the ownership of the public street, this sense may be so weak that I throw my chewed up chewing gum on the street without thinking of the external effects. This suggests a second point.
The more valuable the common good is that I draw from a commons, the more willing I am to contribute to that commons and the less inclined I will free ride. Even though the security of my country is a shared good and even though it may be relatively easy to have other guys die to protect that security, I may decide to risk my life by joining the army because I gain common goods from such an action like social recognition, the affirmation of patriotism, and the chance for becoming a hero. Likewise, there is no point in free riding in friendship or a family. Friendship has its value as a common good only if I do my best being a good friend, that is, contributing to the common good. I may shirk my responsibilities as a member of my family leaving the duties to my partner, but then I risk loosing the respect and, worse, the love, of the other members. The value of the common good depends on my contribution.
You see here the possibility of weighing and calculating. How much effort do I need to put in order to sustain the respect and love of the others? Yes, there are trade-offs. When artists put more energy in family life, they can contribute less to the commons of science and so loose in terms of reputation and satisfaction as artists. They have to weigh their options, may even make some implicit or explicit calculations, yet are cooperating and contributing either way. That is, they have to take into account others in the commons in order to know whether what they do constitutes a contribution.
Ramello and others who have considered the commons of the arts conclude that the application of intellectual property rights undermine the commonness of the art. Many questions await to be answered. We can now only guess how commons come about, how they are sustained, how their quality is determined relative to other commons. Informal relationships appear to be more conducive than market type relationships and bureaucracies. The critical policy question is how governmental programs and agencies can stimulate the formation of creative commons.
The literature on the commons and common goods is limited and focuses most of all on the common goods in the form of natural resources. If I am right common goods are ubiquitous and dominate our daily lives. I’d dare say that most of our actions, if not all, involve common goods. Either we contribute to them, benefit from them, or realize their values somehow. Because we value common goods, we want to contribute to them. This may seem like altruistic behavior but it is not as we suffer in case we do not do so. We can neglect our families but will risk losing respect, appreciation, and love from those with whom we share intimate relationships. We may skip the army that is about to defend the honor of our country, but risk being known as a traitor or coward.
Little has been written about arts as a common goods. There is room for elaboration and further investigation.
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