Sometimes when we speak of the commons we are referring to a resource like fisheries, air or water, that all members of a community can use and that may cease to be self-renewing if overused or polluted. But sometimes the commons is less tangible and the interests we share in it are harder to define. The commons includes the range of behaviors individuals can expect from most others, most of the time. These expectations allow individuals to chart their paths through a day in our intricately interconnected society, a weave of habit and helpfulness that we come to rely on.
A sense of security, such as the ability to walk the streets of a city without fear, is a resource shared by the city's people, and is essential to their lives and livelihoods. That sense of security can survive occasional incidents and violations, but when too many crimes occur it becomes depleted. The benefit is lost to all the citizens, and even to the criminal who shattered the peace in exploiting their confidence once too often. In the same way, generosity, such as the willingness to stop and give directions or help someone in trouble, and confidence, such as the readiness to believe that public officials are basically honest and that doctors and policemen will help when needed, are part of the fabric of life. Honesty is a commons resource. The assumption that newspapers and scales are mostly accurate, or that flowers planted near the sidewalk will not be gratuitously vandalized, these too are part of the commons that make civilized life possible. When times are bad, a shared belief in light at the end of the tunnel keeps people struggling to survive, and the sense of common purpose allows individuals to face their own deaths with the sense that what they died for will continue.
These social resources of the commons have become badly eroded in our day, partly because we as a society have steadily reduced the values of common decency and common sense. At a certain point, aberrations of behavior within the commons become so common or so highly publicized that they are no longer seen as exceptional. We have come to believe that any president may be a crook and that any adult may commit child abuse. One of the effects of the Holocaust has been to convince us all that what could happen in civilized Germany could happen anywhere. Indeed, whenever and wherever the unthinkable occurs, thinking is altered forever.
We have partially forgotten that resources in a social commons can be depleted by individuals. If an individual violates (consumes) too much trust, then the whole commons is depleted. A smooth operator reduces both the abundance and quality of common human resources. These are two ways to destroy a commons: consume the trust and security resources, or deny that trust and security even exist or ever have existed.
The costs of depleting the sense of trust and security range from empty flower beds to citizens afraid to walk out their own front doors, from failures to seek medical help in a timely way to pervasive cynicism about the political process. We become ready to greet virtually all information with a mixture of disbelief and unreasoning credulity, for lack of a common sense of what is likely to be true.
All efforts to protect the material commons rely on the human-constructed resources of the social commons: the readiness to believe that the covenants protecting their use are based on reasonable estimates and that most users will respect them. Even as we consider the measures necessary for the protection of material commons, we need to be on the alert for the diversity of social commons so that these too can be imitated, created, and protected.