The Road from Surfdom

by Henry Farrell on August 10, 2004

“Tom W. Bell”: has a fun post analyzing surfing as a system of non-state enforced property rights. Surfers apparently have a very-well developed set of norms regarding who gets which wave. Bell, who is a hard-core libertarian, sees this as mostly reflecting surfers’ “profound respects for property rights.” Surfers, by his account, behave like Lockeans when divvying up the waves. However, there’s an alternative explanatory framework that does a better job, I reckon, of explaining what’s going on – Lin Ostrom’s “account”: of common pool resources, and the rules governing them.

Bell’s emphasis on natural property rights seems to me to obscure the real explanatory factors in his story as he tells it – the existence of a community, with collective norms on how a common resource should be allocated. As Bell describes it:

bq. How do surfers enforce their wave rights? For the most part, they rely on the gentle arts of social suasion. Surfers bobbing in the line-up make up a community of sorts, one often strengthened by the presence of locals who know and look out for each other.

This suggests two things. First, that surfers face a collective dilemma – how to manage a common pool resource – a resource in which as Ostrom describes it

bq. it is difficult to exclude or limit users once the resource is provided, and one person’s consumption of resource units removes those units from those available to others.

In this example, the common pool resource is the ocean (as a source of surfable waves), and the units are the waves themselves. Once a unit (a wave) is removed from the resource, others can’t use it; as Bell describes it, “one wave face can generally support only one ride at a time.” This suggests that the apparent consonance of surfing rules with _individual_ property rights is less a reflection of the surfing ethos than of the nature of the good itself. While the resource (the ocean) is collective, the individual units of that resource, by their nature, can usually only be enjoyed by one individual. The collective good of the ocean remains collective. As the surfing rules that Bell links to “describe it”:

bq. Share the ocean, not only with other surfers, but also the marine life which lives in it … The sea is there for everyone to use and share.”

Second, Bell’s account, as I read it, provides some evidence that what governs individual behaviour is not so much a sense of natural property rights as a community, with specific informal rules as to which kinds of behaviour are socially acceptable, and which are unacceptable. This suggests that surfing is not so much a libertarian utopia as an anarchy (in Michael Taylor’s sense of the word) in which a community provides an alternative governance mechanism to the state. As Ostrom documents, communities can do a pretty good job of governing collective resources if they’re allowed to, through precisely the kinds of informal sanctions that Bell talks about. Furthermore, as Ostrom documents, community sanctions often escalate, beginning with a warning that the offender is breaking the rules, and escalating punishments if the offender continues to behave badly. Compare with Bell:

bq. Getting the stink-eye for dropping in on somebody else’s wave stings badly enough. Sanctions against repeat offenders may escalate to sharp words or, in extraordinary cases, to physical violence. When someone dropped in on me recently, for instance, I first forebore the offense, then took alarm at his unsafe proximity and verbally warned him to back-off. Finally, when that proved unavailing, I put my hand on the punk’s chest, shoved him off his board, and finished out my ride.

Indeed, the rule that surfers who repeatedly waste waves draw blame (which Bell attributes to some version of Locke’s second proviso) could equally easily be interpreted as instantiating a general community norm of fairness in the allocation of resources. In the surfing rules linked to above, surfers are admonished not to be selfish.

bq. DON’T HOG THE WAVES: Don’t try to catch every single wave that comes through. You will only create animosity amongst the others in the line up and will be seen as a wave pig or hog. If you have the paddling power or a board that allows you to get into the waves a lot earlier remember this, learn to give and you will receive. Share the waves around and learn to give a few to the other crew. Respect gets respect.

Bell closes the post by suggesting that the academy subsidize his surfing travels.

bq. I eager solicit funding so that I can expand my study to include cross-cultural comparisons of the role that property rights play in surfing by, for instance, extensive experimental work in Hawaii, Costa Rica, Fiji, and Australia.

He’s joking of course – but there probably is an interesting research agenda in all of this. If Stephen Levitt can get into the _AER_ by analyzing penalty shootouts in football, there’s no reason why Bell shouldn’t be able to rustle up a grant to do some proper work on CPR, rules and surfdom.

via “BoingBoing”:

Update: some additions regarding surfing rules.



Joe O 08.10.04 at 9:15 pm

[This a repost from Tom W Bell’s site in order]

In California, the ocean up to the high tide line is public property and easements are often obtained by the state to allow public access to the ocean. Tom W Bell’s discussion of the informal “property” rights as to individual waves among surfers paradoxically points out the real benefits to surfers of state ownership and state enforced access to the ocean. There is no “tragedy of the commons” for surfing waves because of the informal rules he points out. (Off topic, similar informal rules may have meant that there really wasn’t any “tragedy of the commons” for commons either).

This is not to say that the control of surf spots in California is not attempted. Places like the Ranch restrict the number of surfers by fighting public access. Localism at other spots can include bullying, vandalism and violence. Surfing also has informal rules against disclosing spot locations and conditions. Advocates for restricted access and extreme localism at certain spots make “tragedy of the commons” arguments but it is really just the “tragedy of not getting as many waves as you used to”. The overall utility of surfers is increased by public control and enforced access to surf spots. Score one for statist intervention. It is not like property rights in surf spots would lead to the construction of new surf spots.

Field work in Fiji would be interesting. Cloudbreak is surfed mainly by people staying at Tavarua. Other boats come from the main island but are chased away by the Tavarua boats when the waves get good. It is not totally clear to me whether Tavarura legally has sole rights to Cloudbreak, or whether Tavarua uses some other less formal social control over Cloudbreak. Fiji has rules restricting the sale of land from aboriginal Fijians to non-native Fijians (most significantly a large population from the Indian subcontinent). The Tavarua surf company has a long term lease on the island from a Fijian tribe. The Fijian tribe has a strong presence on Tavarua which may have something to do with any informal social control over Cloudbreak.


Henry 08.10.04 at 9:27 pm

Joe O – those comments are really interesting. The Ostrom piece that I link to has some useful things to say about the circumstances under which “polycentric” government may act to reinforce the good aspects of local community rules.


John Quiggin 08.10.04 at 9:39 pm

A crucial point about common property that’s relevant here is that it does not mean “open access”. Common property is the property of a specific group, as Joe O’s post indicates. The group regulates use by its own members and has the right to exclude outsiders. As Joe hints, this is why there wasn’t, in reality, a tragedy of the commons.

So, common property rights, like other property rights, require enforcement, normally by the state or with support from the state for private enforcement.


Backword Dave 08.10.04 at 9:39 pm

You’ve sort of saved me a post. In some respects this demonstrates the British (or possibly Anglophone) regard for queues (‘lines’ to those in the US). These aren’t about property rights per se but about norms which work well. (If we all queue, we all get bread. If we riot, we may get nothing apart from bruises.)

However, I was going to post on libertarians and (intellectual) property rights. Once a blog name is taken by someone, does that exclude anyone using the same blog name? Suppose your name is John Smith or Muhammed Ali. Can you stop someone else calling their blog “John Smith” or “Muhammed Ali”?

This seems to be the inference in the comment here. Both sites are, ironically enough, liberatarians. And they both chose to call their blogs “The Commons”.

What was it one Patrick Kavanagh said to the other Patrick Kavanagh?


Matt Weiner 08.10.04 at 9:40 pm

the common pool resource is the ocean
Pretty big pool, dude.


Lance Boyle 08.10.04 at 10:44 pm

Re: surfing/commons
The feedback loop for violations of the rules is relatively immediate, and the bigger the wave the harsher the penalties, often paid by the putative “owner” of the wave instead of the “trespasser”.
The pool’s big but the user’s margin is a narrow band, and punctuated in America by long stretches of denied access. What’s being distributed and regulated isn’t even a wave so much as the very finite locus of entry onto the wave’s face.
A wave’s what it looks like from the beach, in the water it’s the breaking edge that matters – the lip, the curl.

We had/have all of time to exist in, but we only occupy this one moment, as it slides across the day.


suresh 08.10.04 at 11:05 pm

An interesting model of selection between private property(bourgeois strategy) and collective management is given by bowles and choi


Glen 08.10.04 at 11:16 pm

You’re drawing a sharp line between “property rights” and “community norms.” Why? A property right *is* a kind of community norm, so the fact that community enforcement is involved doesn’t mean property rights are absent. In this case, the norm indicates that a particular person will have the sole right to use a wave and exclude others from it — the very definition of private property. The surf community cooperates in the enforcement of that right.


Henry 08.10.04 at 11:28 pm

Glen, I agree with you entirely, but I’m not sure that Bell would. As I understand him (I could be wrong) he seems to believe that property rights are natural and pre-given in some important sense, rather than the contingent product of community-level choice.


Joe O 08.11.04 at 12:50 am

I looked over the Ostrom piece. It was very interesting.

One difference of surfing from many common pool situations is that the ideal total utilization of most common pools at any given time is less than the maximum. It is not a good idea to cut down every tree, capture every fish, or use up all the water. For surfing, the waves are metered out over time unaffected by previous rates of surfing wave utilization. The ideal level of surf spot utilization is arguably the maximum (every surfable wave has a surfer on it). This makes entry restrictions to surf spots much less legitimate than in most common pools. A fair wave distribution is to allow any surfer to go out and to distribute waves based on the informal rules.

In any surf region, there are typically a mix of surf spots. Crowded reef or point breaks with a small number of high quality waves and a consistent takeoff spot; and less crowded beach breaks with a larger number of lower quality waves distributed over a larger takeoff area. The high quality surf breaks get so crowded that the average number of waves surfed per surfer is much lower. Surfers select surf spots with this in mind.

High quality surf breaks tend to be the places where there is some extreme localism. The Ostrom piece indicates that for some common pools extreme localism (e.g. lobster trap smashing) helps prevent over-utilization of a common resource. Over-utilization of waves is not really a problem for surf spots. In surfing, extreme localism is a way for a group to illegitimately maintain greater access to waves.

At crowded surf locations, the informal surf rules generally result in the better surfers getting the waves. The takeoffs are pushed deeper and deeper until only very good surfers can catch the waves. There is also a pecking order based on surfer quality and seniority at a surf spot. People high on the pecking order can get away with bending the rules more than people lower in the pecking order. It makes a difference who the victim of an informal rule infraction is. At its best, the pecking order results in an ordered distribution of the desirable waves to the best surfers; at its worst, the pecking order blends into extreme localism.


Timothy Burke 08.11.04 at 1:54 am

What an interesting piece, and one that it’s not necessary to respond to doctrinally–everyone can kind of just mull it over and see some cool observations in it.

Joe O. makes some interesting points. The larger point about enforcing the commons on the ocean is important, but also kind of outside the local ethnographic framing of property that Bell is offering. Within that frame, though, Joe O’s observations about Bell’s piece are important. If property rights were natural and intrinsic in such a setting, we would expect to see an optimal distribution of wave-access in one of two ways: perfect equitability (e.g., everyone gets their turn) or perfect suitability to the given wave-entitlement of individual surfers (e.g., the best waves to the best surfers, with everyone matching their natural place in the wave “market” to their actual talent at surfing).

I don’t know that in actual surfing situations you see either, exactly, and if you do, you don’t see either at equilibrium. You see something that’s a kind of mobile, shifting and essentially cultural and contingent understanding at any given surfing site–it’s not ‘natural’.

It may be that the convergence of many sites on such a ‘cultural’ understanding points to some kind of return to a natural or sensible distribution of surfing access, but it’s not inevitable as a natural distribution would be. There are surfing sites where these understandings break down for the short term or for good, for any number of reasons. In fact, the whole thing rather reminds me of Usenet before the “endless summer” of AOL access.

The frame that occurs to me, then, is actually “moral economy” rather than a kind of natural-rights rubric–a culturally enforced, historically contingent proposition about how one should behave that is enforced in various ways (including violence) and which is both surprisingly vigorous on a day-to-day basis and yet also highly vulnerable to some kind of major intrusion from a cultural “outside”.


JamesW 08.11.04 at 8:21 am

Surfing big waves is medium dangerous, unlike queueing for bread. Surfers may need each other’s help at any moment, and have a strong self-interest in preserving a reciprocating community. Does anybody on the blog know about the culture of mountaineering?


JamesW 08.11.04 at 8:23 am

PS: vampire bats


Joe O 08.11.04 at 10:40 am

The informal rules used to be different. Up to about 1940 or so, surfers would ride waves straight into the beach. The convention was that every wave was a party wave. When surfboards improved and surfers started surfing parallel to the beach on the face of the wave, the informal rules switched to the modern form. Riding straight into the beach is now considered “wasting” a wave.

The core of the informal rules of surfing are pretty stable. Until surfing styles radically change in some unimaginable way, the core informal rules won’t change much. The one-surfer-per-wave rule prevents collisions that can occur when a surfer drops in on another surfer.

The change of the core rules over time doesn’t indicate to me that the core rules are historicly contingent. Some form of the one-surfer-per-wave rule (and thus wave as informal “property”) seems inevitable.

This is not to say that conflicts among wave allocation methods don’t occur. Localism is the theory that “locals” have more rights to waves than “outsiders”. People use a number of justifications but the main explanation for localism is that the locals can get away with it.

Interesting conflicts in wave allocation rules can occur amoung users of different types of wave riding equipment. Longboards make it easier to catch waves than shortboards so at shortboard dominated surf locations catching too many waves with a longboard is frowned upon (the point of the “don’t hog the waves” rule Henry points to above). At big wave surfing locations, the informal rule is that no tow-in surfers can go out when there is any paddle surfers out, but this informal rule is unstable when a relatively large number of tow-in surfers are prevented from going out by one or two paddle surfers. Daniel Duanne has a good article in Outside magazine describing conflicts between body surfers and boogie boarders at the Wedge which resulted in the local government’s intervention on the side of the body surfers.

At point or reef breaks with small takeoff spots, the switch between wave sharing and pecking order wave allocations is more like a predictable phase transition than a conflict between informal rules. At very low surfer densities (when there are fewer surfers than set waves) wave sharing is the dominant stategy and people are very friendly. When there is even slightly more surfers than set waves, wave sharing is possible but defection to pecking order behavior is very likely. Things get tense fast.

At large beach breaks, the takeoff spots are larger and more variable which means that the waves are more randomly distributed to surfers. Pecking orders are less important and more fluid. You seldom see very many people you recognize so reputation is less important than how well you do on your first wave of the day. The lower importance of reputation reduces the payoff to being a badass so bullying is rare even when the waves are good. At a point break, kicking someones ass is a good way to move up the pecking order; at a large beach break, who would even know.


momo 08.11.04 at 12:20 pm

jamesw – “Surfing big waves is medium dangerous, unlike queueing for bread. Surfers may need each other’s help at any moment, and have a strong self-interest in preserving a reciprocating community. Does anybody on the blog know about the culture of mountaineering?”

I was thinking the same thing.

Whether you’re surfing, swimming, mountaineering or less poetically driving on the motorway you need to make way for others or you’d be putting both yourself and others in danger.

Even when it’s not a matter of necessity and safety, respecting other people’s equal right to share a common space is at the very least a matter of basic manners.

I don’t see where it’s got anything to do with property rights really. You don’t “own” a wave except in the purely metaphorical sense. You just use it like you’d use a public telephone. It doesn’t belong to you. Even more so for elements of nature that are not in your own private property.


Timothy Burke 08.11.04 at 2:52 pm

I think there’s a big difference between a natural right argument and an argument that people are generally inclined to be sensible. Joe O is arguing that surfers are generally inclined to be sensible. Ok. To say that the distribution of understood rights-to-a-wave is an indication that property rights are natural, intrinsic, and not contingent on local practice and historically changing consciousness is a different kind of argument.


Joe O 08.11.04 at 9:01 pm

People have strong intuitions about how “property” is to be handled. People don’t like to lose “property”. I am pretty sure people have brain modules that recognize when “property” is at risk.

Consider parking spaces. When people move to a big city they often consider possessive behavior over parking spaces ridiculous. They soon find out that parking spaces in the big city are valuable and thus “property” that triggers the brain module. Nobody has to tell them; they figure it out.

When someone is waiting to take a parking space, the person with the parking space takes significantly longer to leave than they otherwise would. No one consciously thinks “I’ll just take longer because someone else is waiting”, you just get a slightly disturbed feeling that makes it harder to leave. The brain module is triggering the emotions.

Things that are easily plugged into the brain module are often considered “natural property”, but of course they are not. God didn’t invent parking spaces and land means vastly different things to hunter gatherer cultures than agricultural cultures.

“Property” that easily triggers the brain module is likely to result in informal rules. Things that don’t easily trigger the brain module are much less likely to result in informal rules and often require state intervention to be considered property.

Things like bikes are subject to informal rules that are codified by the state. The rules are stable and don’t change much from country to country. Things like Patents and Copyrights are legal creations of the state that are very historically contingent and can be significantly different from country to country.

The “all property is socially constructed” concept is often used to blur the distinction between codified informal rules and property distinctions imposed from above. Often this blurring is good, we really don’t want people thinking that the government is stealing their money when they pay taxes. Libertarians are annoying. Sometimes this blurring is bad, Ostrom describes how informal property rules can often protect a common pool resource better than a quota system imposed from above.

Getting back to surfing, “wave possession” definitely triggers the mental module for “property”. It is like parking spaces in the big city. Waves are desirable and sometimes rare.

The informal rules surrounding wave possession are less arbitrary and more stable than they appear from the outside. Even apparent defections from the informal rules generally take the form of restricting who the rules apply to. For some, the rules apply to interactions with members of group A but not to interactions with members of group B. “My friends” but not “strangers”. “Locals” but not “outsiders”. “Shortboarders” but not “longboarders”. “Hardboard surfers” but not “boogie boarders”. Most surfers apply the informal rules to everybody and this is at least the ideal.


Tom 08.11.04 at 10:53 pm

“People high on the pecking order can get away with bending the rules more than people lower in the pecking order. ”

FWIW, my cousin at Santa Cruz, who was getting to be a fairly good surfer, ditched it for another water sport as the older surfers were so territorial.


Jonathan Wilde 08.12.04 at 6:14 pm

Is the trackback url listed anywhere? I responded to this post on my blog. Before moving to WordPress, Movable Type would automatically ping the post linked to on Crooked Timber. WP allows us to do this manually, but I could not find a trackback url.

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