Common Property: Our Hidden Wealth

From saving the environment to liberating intellectual property, learning to recognize and appreciate common property is the first step toward protecting the commons.

Our Common Wealth

Though the commons is everywhere, it is nonetheless little noticed. For economists, it is a kind of inchoate mass that awaits the vivifying hand of the market to attain life. Forests are worthless until they become timber, just as quiet is worthless until it becomes advertising.

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My wife grew up in what Western experts, not without condescension, call a “developing” country. The social life of her village revolved largely around a tree. People gathered there in the evening to visit, tell stories, just pass the time. Some of my wife’s warmest childhood memories are of playing hide-and-seek late into the evening while the parents chatted under the tree—or on a neighbor’s porch, which was another version of the same thing.

The tree was more than a quaint meeting place; it was an economic asset in the root sense of that word. It produced a bonding of neighbors, an information network, an activity center for kids, and a bridge between generations. Older people could be part of the flow of daily life, and children got to experience something scarce in the United States today—an unstructured and noncompetitive setting in which their parents were close at hand.

In the United States we spend hundreds of billions of dollars on everything from community centers to kiddie videos to try to achieve those results, with great inefficiency and often much less positive effect. Yet most Western economists would regard the tree as a pathetic state of underdevelopment. They would urge “modernization,” by which they would mean cutting down the tree and making people pay money for what it provided. In their preferred vision, corporate-produced entertainment would displace local culture. Something free and available to all would become commodities sold for a price. The result would be “growth” as economists understand that term.

That’s the story of the commons, a generic term (like the market and the state) that denotes wealth we share. To use this term is to evoke a puzzled pause. You mean the government? The common people? That park in Boston? In fact, the commons includes our entire life support system, both natural and social. The air and oceans, the web of species, wilderness and flowing water—all are parts of the commons. So are language and knowledge, sidewalks and public squares, the stories of childhood, the processes of democracy. Some parts of the commons are gifts of nature, others the product of human endeavor. Some are new, such as the internet, others are as ancient as soil and calligraphy.

What they have in common is that they all “belong” to all of us, if that is the word. No one has exclusive rights to them. We inherit them jointly and hold them in trust for those who come after us. We are “temporary possessors and life renters,” as Edmund Burke wrote, and we “should not think it amongst [our] rights to commit waste on the inheritance.”

Though the commons is everywhere, it is nonetheless little noticed. For economists, it is a kind of inchoate mass that awaits the vivifying hand of the market to attain life. Forests are worthless until they become timber, just as quiet is worthless until it becomes advertising. In this way of seeing things, the enclosure of a commons is always a good thing. Money passes over the commons and says, “Let there be light.” The village tree becomes Fox Broadcasting, and trumpets blare in heaven.

So too in politics and the media, where the concept of protecting the commons might as well not exist. There are no news reports on the condition of the commons, no speeches about it in the Senate. Newspapers have many pages of stock market reports but barely a word about wealth that belongs to all of us. Political debate is about the government versus the market. One camp wants to turn everything into something for sale, the other counters with programs of the state. It is a debate between Wal-Mart and welfare, and it leaves no room for anything else.

But of course there is more. The value of the commons is beyond reckoning. Before we can protect it, though, we have to see it, and that is no small task. When we breathe the air or banter with neighbors on the sidewalk, it rarely occurs to us that we are using a commons. A commons has a quality of just being there. People don’t need a contract to breathe or an insurance policy to call a neighbor for help. Nor do commons require advertising. The market is always pushing “goods” and “services” in our faces, which might raise doubts as to whether they are really good or really serve. A commons, by contrast, quietly waits to be used.


Of course, seeing the commons is only a first step; the ultimate challenge is to protect the commons. The solution is not to create new government agencies or programs. Rather, it is to create rules, boundaries, and property rights to protect common wealth, just as we do for private wealth.

This is a crucial point. Societies create private property and societies sustain it. Take away our legal and institutional supports and private property crumbles.

If private wealth requires such an array of props, it is not surprising that common wealth needs as many or more. Private property has lawyers, lobbyists, and bankers on its side. Common wealth, by contrast, is poorly organized, cash short, and inherently nonaggressive. In other words, it needs help.

What forms should such help take? The government should not run a commons any more than it should run businesses. But it can, for example, stop the corrosive effects of mall sprawl upon the social commons of Main Streets. It can reserve more airwaves for community use so the electromagnetic spectrum functions more like a village tree. It can keep the internet from being taken over by large corporations. Steps like these would not mean more government intrusion into economic, environmental, and social space. Rather, they would make it possible for something besides corporations to occupy these spaces.

Regarding saving the environment, the case is especially strong. The oceans and atmosphere do not belong to government or private corporations. They belong to all of us, and we need institutions that reflect this. One can imagine, for example, trusts that receive polluters’ payments and distribute them to all of us as owners. Such institutions would reflect the fact that there are common rights to clean air and water just as there are private rights to the factories that pollute them. Put commoners in charge of the air, let us charge polluters for using it, and we’ll see a lot less pollution than we do now.


If one thing is central to the idea of America, it is the ability to breathe freely in the atmosphere of the mind. Thomas Jefferson was the champion of this idea, and he saw that government was not the only threat to it.

“If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all other of exclusive property,” Jefferson wrote, “it is the action of the thinking power called an idea. Share money and you have less; share an idea and you still have it, and more.”

Benjamin Franklin expressed a similar view when he explained why he didn’t seek patents on his numerous inventions. “As we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others,” he wrote, “we should be glad to serve others by any invention of ours.”

In this spirit, the Constitution restricted government-bestowed intellectual monopolies—patents and copyrights—to “limited times,” after which writings and inventions would flow back into the public domain that nurtured them. Jefferson practiced what he preached, in this respect at least. Like Franklin, he refused to patent his own inventions because he believed invention to be the property of humankind. As the nation’s first commissioner of patents, he did not grant these intellectual monopolies easily. His aim was to enrich the public domain, not the private monopolizers of ideas.

This vision prevailed in America for two centuries, more or less. The result was more enterprise, research, and invention than the world had ever seen. To be sure, our nation had its share of patent hounds, Thomas Edison not least of them. But in the realm of science the Jeffersonian ethos prevailed. Jonas Salk, who discovered the first polio vaccine was once asked who would own the new drug. “There is no patent,” Salk relied. “Could you patent the sun?”

Today, that question would not be rhetorical. Fences and tollgates are rising rapidly on the commons of the mind. Copyright and patent monopolies have gone far beyond what the founders intended. Corporations now claim ownership of everything under the sun, if not the sun itself: body parts, business practices, DNA. They even claim ownership of the English language. McDonald’s has asserted trademark claims to 131 common words and phrases, such as “Always Fun” and “Made for You.”

Supposedly, this ownership frenzy serves as an incentive for invention and discovery. But more often the opposite is the case. In university labs, secrecy and paranoia have replaced collegiality. Researchers now must navigate a minefield of competing patent claims. A new virus-resistant strain of rice can’t be sold because it needs approvals from so many different patent holders. At MIT some graduate students don’t want to defend their theses for fear of revealing proprietary information.

As for copyrights, the original term was 14 years. Now, it is the lifetime of the creator plus 70 years. If this expansion has brought a corresponding improvement in literary quality, it’s not apparent from the bestseller lists. But it’s a huge profit booster for companies like Disney and Microsoft, who pay us nothing for it.

Another place fences are going up is on the world wide web. The internet began much like America itself, as a commons open to all. The idea, observes law professor Lawrence Lessig, was “never to allow anyone to decide what would be allowed.” Then corporations moved in. Websites became loaded with commercials, and search engines turned into payola stations. Now some companies are pushing for a two-tier internet in which their content gets preference over others’.

There is resistance to these trends, of course. Yet inch by inch, Jefferson’s vision for America is turning upside down. Centuries ago the concept of private property emerged as a means of liberation. It helped break the shackles of royal power and served as a bulwark against the state. But as Jefferson intuited, taken too far, private property becomes another version of what it once opposed.

The challenge now is to restore the balance between the private and the common that the founders sought to establish. “If communism versus capitalism was the struggle of the 20th century,” Lessig writes, “then control versus freedom will be the debate of the 21st.”


Every movement requires a story. To claim the future it must first explain the past.

The true story of the commons does this. It explains how we lost the capacity to see our own wealth. It debunks the myth that privatization is always progress. And it shows how growth has become a form of cannibalism in which the market devours the bases of its own existence.

Many of us know this story at some level, but usually it is a story without a name or solution. The commons provides both: it is the commons that is being devoured and the commons that must be restored. What’s more, it is the commons that opens the way to a politics outside the left/right divide.

Some on the right are starting to see that the market isn’t the answer to every problem. Many on the left are coming to the same conclusion about government. So what’s the alternative? An alternative potentially acceptable to both sides is the commons.

If one looks closely, one can see the seeds of a new commons movement germinating. They’re visible in many places, from local land trusts to your laptop to your tabletop. They’re seen in battles against Wal-Mart, patented seeds, and advertising in schools, as well as in open source software, free Wi-Fi hot spots, farmers’ markets, time banks, and big ideas like the sky trust.

Over the years, I’ve reported on many of these developments. And I’ve come to believe that these seemingly unrelated battles and institutions are, in fact, the beginnings of a new commons sector. Like those in soil, these seeds will grow with nurturance and support. If they get that support, a vibrant commons sector can, in time, protect nature, reduce inequality, and improve the quality of life for rich and poor alike.

A protected and enhanced commons requires three things. First, it needs institutions that effectively manage common property on behalf of future generations. Such institutions should be transparent, free of corporate influence, and legally accountable to future generations. Many existing trusts show how this can be done.

Second, it requires property rights. As capitalists know, property is power, and at this moment our common assets lack adequate property rights. Hence, they can be trespassed upon by private corporations almost at will. Common property needs to be shielded from such transgressions, just as private property is.

Third, a strengthened commons requires government support; the state and the commons are two different things. It means government nurturing the commons as zealously as it nurtures corporations—indeed more zealously, to make up for decades of neglect.

Since the commons is neither the market nor the state, its advocates aren’t locked into traditional conservative or liberal camps. They can enlist the state the same way partisans of the market do—to establish rules and boundaries and protect property, in this case common property—and then let the game play out. The goal isn’t to replace the market with the commons, but to build a durable balance between the two on a level playing field.

It’s a new kind of freedom movement, a fight for freedom not just from the state but from short-term profit obsession. If it catches on, the cause of freedom will take another turn.  

Jonathan Rowe was a Nader’s “Raider,” a U.S. Senate aide, an editor at Washington Monthly, and cofounder of He died in 2011. Excerpted from Our Common Wealth, a compilation of Rowe’s essays edited by Peter Barnes and published by Berrett-Koehler Publisher’s, Inc. (April 2013).