Anything peaceful and voluntary.

CPR at the Beach: Ostrom’s Prescription by Robert Anthony Peters


In trying to make the most of my Santa Cruz tenure, I strive to walk the beach each day. Some mornings start a little later as I wait for the coastal fog to burn off. Most everywhere I live I take long walks in my surroundings. It is very infrequent that I live in more peaceful spots that will put me in touch with less developed, natural environments. I consider this a wonderful opportunity to step back and let the gears turn on a wide range of topics, especially now that there is a palpable decrease in bodies as schools begin their annual abduction of young people.

This decrease in usage prompted ponderings on public presence on beaches. How would it differ if the property was possessed differently? Currently it is publicly held. More technically it is owned by the local government, the City of Santa Cruz. More traditional views of economic modeling would hold that this is one of two options for ownership. The other would be private ownership. Beaches across the world have been owned by both of these parties, both with varying degrees of success dependent on your criteria for judgment. Government owned and regulated resources are often subject to overuse and other depletion or degradation and it usually comes at a hefty cost. Privately owned can be very well preserved but exclusive in nature, allowing such limited enjoyment for a resource that has often, and can easily be, enjoyed by many.

Fortunately, recent decades have seen some more creative exploration of ownership, namely by Elinor Ostrom, 2009 economics Nobel Prize recipient who recently passed away. At the time of her passing, I was at a conference in Hermosa Beach discussing her book, “Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action.” Her research has explored, both theoretically and historically, alternatives to the aforementioned dichotomy of private and public ownership. Common pool resource problems (or CPR for short) don’t fit into the traditional molds very well. CPRs are defined as things which are difficult to exclude people from and are rivalrous in consumption, that is to say that when one uses or takes from it, less is available for others. Thankfully, she has unearthed many examples across the world of cases where groups seem to have found optimal solutions for dealing with CPRs. Her book does a superb job of outlining how Spaniards and Filipinos have dealt with internal waterways to provide for crop irrigation and how Japanese and Swiss have maintained mountainous meadows and forests for pasture land. She had roughed out some of the similarities that were shared amongst the successful operations. From her book, they are as follows:

  1. Clearly defined boundaries (effective exclusion of external un-entitled parties);
  2. Rules regarding the appropriation and provision of common resources that are adapted to local conditions;
  3. Collective-choice arrangements that allow most resource appropriators to participate in the decision-making process;
  4. Effective monitoring by monitors who are part of or accountable to the appropriators;
  5. A scale of graduated sanctions for resource appropriators who violate community rules;
  6. Mechanisms of conflict resolution that are cheap and of easy access;
  7. Self-determination of the community recognized by higher-level authorities;
  8. In the case of larger common-pool resources, organization in the form of multiple layers of nested enterprises, with small local CPRs at the base level.

So if we were to apply this to the beach at Santa Cruz, a co-op of sorts owned by those who use it frequently would be developed and the framework might look something like this.

  1. Natural plant growth is returned to the borders of the beach to provide a natural barrier with walkways to the enjoyment areas of the beach, if it is deemed necessary to exclude some at certain times to prevent overuse.
  2. Those in the community who enjoy it and are knowledgeable about it would provide the minimum of rules in order to maintain an orderly beach.
  3. There could be a periodic review by an ad-hoc group of members.
  4. Volunteers or hired managers would ensure that the beach was being used appropriately and that it was not getting congested.
  5. Sanctions such as brief separation from the resource would be likely.
  6. Often dependence on community and neighborly pressure is enough to keep compliance high.
  7. City, county, state and federal government will allow this cooperative, voluntary endeavor to occur and not step in to assume control.
  8. If you were looking at doing this to the entire Pacific coast, several CPR management organizations would exist, incorporating some into larger regions, but always working to maintain as much local control as possible.

It is no wonder that Ostrom’s works have re-invigorated Public Choice theory. As well, there is a definite flavor of the Hayekian knowledge problem, that is to say that local actors will have far more knowledge of what works and does not work in their circumstances than do removed outside actors.

Santa Cruz beach is great. I have always enjoyed going to it. Taking a look at it now though, I wonder what it could be. It is a pretty beaten down bit of sand that often has more refuse and less nature than I would prefer. There are days when people are practically tripping over each other due to congestion. If the current arrangement does not work, I hope the lovers of the Santa Cruz beach will take a look at Ostrom’s work and see the possibility and alternative of voluntary, peaceful arrangements for its future and its betterment.

Robert Anthony Peters is an actor, producer and speaker on liberty and art. Email him at:
Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, Myspace, IMDB, Peters Sausage Co., Laissez Faire Media, Culture of Liberty Institute, Pak Mail


Libertopia Oct  11–14  2012, San Diego  CA


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