The commons is re-emerging as a way of organizing human activity in the digital age. It is a bottom-up, grassroots movement that many hope will provide an alternative way of valuing the world, promote and support community development while valuing diversity, and sharing ideas and information. In The Value of Nothing, Raj Patel cautions, “It is important not to romanticize the idea,” explaining that originally,

“The commons were an ongoing battlefield between lords and serfs, but it was one in which the poor had won some victories, and had managed to stake a claim to public space in defiance of those who oppressed them. . . The Magna Carta certainly included demands made by the barons, merchants and the well-to-do in London, but it also included a strong set of protections of common rights, providing common access to the food, fuel, freedom and fruits of the forest provided for common people, returning to the public the natural resources that King John had taken for himself.”[1]

This explains the enduring interest in the stories of Robin Hood as evidenced in the success of two recent movies, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, starring the American actor Kevin Costner and the other, Robin Hood: The Untold Story Behind the Legend, starring the Australian actor, Russell Crowe.

Although the meaning of common good is debated in the literature, the concept is not new; most religious practices around the world include this guiding principle in some form. Michael J. Sandel, author of What Money Can’t Buy, tells us

“Democracy does not require perfect equality, but it does require that citizens share in a common life. What matters is that people of different backgrounds and social positions encounter one another, and bump up against one another, in the course of everyday life. For this is how we learn to negotiate and bide our differences, and how we come to care for the common good.”[2]

Furthermore, when we seek to measure the value of public goods a different logic applies that does not fit with classic market reasoning. Sandel points out that in fact, values such as

“Altruism, generosity, solidarity, and civic spirit are not like commodities that are depleted with use. They are more like muscles that develop and grow with exercise. . . To renew our public life we need to exercise them more strenuously.”[3]

Tim Jackson’s discussion of prosperity is also illuminating on the subject of the common good and what it means to live a good life. In Prosperity without Growth, Jackson reflects on the financial crisis of 2008 suggesting the crisis has shifted the boundaries between the public and the private sectors. In other words the role of both the public (government) and the not-for-profit sectors to protect and provide common goods must be renegotiated. Moreover, Jackson cautions against the assumption that economic growth is the key to living a good life. He says,

“Prosperity is not synonymous with material wealth. And the requirements of prosperity go beyond material sustenance. Rather, prosperity has to do with our ability to flourish: physically, psychologically and socially. Beyond mere subsistence, prosperity hangs crucially on our ability to participate meaningfully in the life of society.” [4]

The classic definition of a public goods from an economic perspective is that, it is non-excludable and non-rival. The chart below shows public goods in relation to private goods, and so-called club/toll goods and common-pool resources.






Private Goods

Common-pool Resources


Club / Toll Goods

Public Goods


Inge Kaul is the author of numerous publications on international public economics and finance and the lead editor of Providing Global Public Goods; Managing Globalization (Oxford University Press, New York, 2003) and  The New Public Finance; Responding to Global Challenges (Oxford University Press, New York, 2006). The standard definitions of public goods are of limited value according to Kaul. In her paper, Public Goods: Taking the Concept to the 21st Century she suggests the following alternative to the classic economic definition.

“The proposal is to require public goods to be inclusive (public in consumption), based on participatory decision-making (public in provision) and offering a fair deal for all (public in the distribution of benefits).[5]

In order maximize the benefits of our cultural diversity and minimize conflicting approaches to current social issues, individuals and groups must understand and recognize the values intrinsic to Living Heritage; their own and others.  The common good depends on the ongoing negotiation of values in the sense of morals, principles, or other ideas that serve as guides to action and only then can it contribute to enhancing our quality of life. The development of public policies and the support of public organizations that serve the common good are essential components of civil society.


[1] Patel, Raj, The Value of Nothing. Toronto: Harper Perennial, 2011, pp. 99 and 100.

[2] Sandel, Michael J., What Money Can’t Buy. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013, p. 203.

[3] Ibid, p. 130.

[4] Jackson, Tim, Prosperity Without Growth. London: Earthscan Ltd., 2011, p. 143.

[5] Kaul, Inge, Public Goods: Taking the Concept to the 21st Century, p. 3. (downloaded June 2013)

Sandra Massey, Research Program Coordinator
Sandra has been an active member of the cultural community for over 20 years. A student by nature, Sandra’s recent interests include memory and the value of personal storytelling, exploring the fine line between fact and fiction, and how we create meaning and build a sense of identity, belonging and place in a pluralistic world.