Fanfare for the Commons

My wife grew up in what Western experts call a ‘developing’ country. The social life of her village in the Philippines revolved largely around a tree. People gathered there in the evening to visit, tell stories, and just pass the time. Some of my wife’s fondest childhood memories are of playing hide-and-seek late into the evening while parents chatted under the tree.

The tree was more than a favorite meeting place. It was a productive asset, if we can reclaim that phrase from the economics profession. It produced strong bonds between neighbors, a lively exchange of information, and an opportunity for kids to experience something scarce in the United States today–an unstructured setting for play. In modern society, we spend hundreds of billions of dollars on everything from sports stadiums to intricate computer networks trying to replicate such essential social functions, generally with less positive effect.

Yet most Western economists would regard this tree and the community that gathers around it as a pathetic example of underdevelopment. They would urge ‘modernization,’ which ultimately means replacing the tree’s function with an assortment of new activities in which money changes hands and commercial messages prevail. People would stay at home and watch television. Corporate-produced entertainment would displace local culture. Kids would gather at a fast-food place or video-game arcade.

The result would be celebrated as ‘economic growth.’ Money would be made. Yet side effects would gradually appear: debt, the sex and violence of commercial entertainment, a weakening of community bonds, a growing distance from the natural world, the obesity and disease that come from a lifestyle hailed as progress.

This tree in a remote village symbolizes the richness of the commons, which is the inheritance that we all share as inhabitants of this Earth. Modern society overlooks the commons as a source of human and ecological well-being. Almost everywhere today, it is subject to degradation and abuse. A whole set of problems facing the world, from environmental destruction to the breakdown of community, arise in large part from the relentless but unrecognized destruction of the commons.

The idea of the commons often evokes a puzzled pause. You mean the government? The common people? That park in downtown Boston? The commons is the vast realm that lies outside of both the economic market and the institutional state, and that all of us typically use without toll or price. The atmosphere and oceans, languages and cultures, the stores of human knowledge and wisdom, the informal support systems of community, the peace and quiet we crave, the genetic building blocks of life–these are all aspects of the commons.

Some are gifts of nature; others are the collective product of human creativity and endeavor. Some, such as the Internet, are new. Others are as ancient as folklore and cooking. But they all ‘belong’ to all of us. No one has exclusive rights. We inherit them jointly, and they are more basic to our lives than either our economic system or the government. One can imagine life without a Commerce Department or, but not without a shared language and clean water. This implies a large responsibility. We are ‘temporary possessors,’ wrote statesman Edmund Burke, and we ‘should not think it amongst [our] rights to cut off the entail, or commit waste on the inheritance.’

Leave the place as clean as you found it, if not cleaner, as our grandmothers used to say. But today few heed this advice. The value of the commons is beyond reckoning. Yet because there is little acknowledgment of its value in our culture, and no legal framework to protect it, the commons is subject to constant invasion, theft, and abuse. Each day brings news of yet another assault. Noisy jets shatter the tranquility of neighborhoods. A sprawling superstore drains the life out of a downtown. Telecommunications firms claim our airwaves commons for their cell phone business. Corporations claim the names of publicly funded sports arenas and cultural institutions. Drug companies take ownership of university research, so that the goal becomes producing more money instead of advancing the cause of knowledge and healing. Even the world’s water is turning into a commodity for sale as corporations race to capture it for a market in developing nations.

The result is a statistical illusion of progress–an increase in monetary transactions that hides the reality of decline in the calculus of people’s well-being. The plundering of the commons is a major factor in what is misleadingly called ‘economic growth.’ Growth has become a process of cannibalization. It often does not add a ‘good’ that wasn’t there before. Instead it takes a good from the commons, diminishes or degrades it, and then sells it back to us in commoditized form. Pollute our lakes and rivers and then sell us swimming pools and bottled water. Destroy the traditional patterns of village and community life, then sell people cars to get around, treadmills for exercise–and pills to calm their nerves.

The destruction of the commons in the name of economic growth also increases inequality because more of life is pushed into the realm that requires money. We are left feeling stressed, worried about the future our kids and grandkids will inhabit–and financially strung out.

A commons has a quality of just being there. Generally the rules for use are traditional and social, as opposed to formal and legalistic. This means, among other things, a happy scarcity of lawyers. People don’t need a contract in order to take a walk, a lease to sail in the ocean, an insurance policy to call a neighbor for help. They don’t pay royalties to use an apt expression or get a license to tell fairy tales to their kids. (That said, it will take new laws and lawyers to protect some commons, as opposed to operating them.)

Another attribute of a commons is an absence of advertising. The market economy is always pushing its ‘goods’ and ‘services’ in our faces. A commons, by contrast, is just there waiting to be used. Often it is discovered. If a swimming hole exists, people will find it. Social commons arise spontaneously–the city sidewalk that becomes a jump rope arena or vending bazaar, the old sofa in the vacant lot that becomes a ghetto equivalent of the village tree.

The commons is a prolific source of serendipity. It is not like the market economy, which is obsessed with a narrow spectrum of human concern–that is, the making of money–and tends to ignore problems that don’t appear on a corporate balance sheet. A commons, by contrast, engages people in a broader way, and produces multiple layers of positive effect. Open-source software such as Linux produces an informal network of collaborators who give their time and talents freely. A neighborhood park gives rise to communities of dog walkers, chess players, basketball players, parents with kids.

Culture thrives in a commons: Compare the menu in a Chinese restaurant–which draws freely from the culinary commons–with the one in a McDonald’s with its trademarked items. The English language is perhaps the ultimate commons, and it grows richer by the day as people, without recognition or compensation, add words and expressions.

The point here is not to romanticize the commons or suggest it should be everything. Markets do some things very well, as do governments. The point rather is the need for boundaries to prevent the market–and the government too–from drowning out the commons and its essential role in our lives.

Before we can reclaim the commons we have to remember how to see it. This is no small task because it has become invisible. The newspapers have many pages of stock market reports, but barely a word on the assets that belong to us all.

The source of this invisibility is no mystery considering the forces that dominate the media and politics. Advertisers and the interests served by campaign contributors make their money by exploiting the commons, not by nurturing it. A culture that recognizes only the part of life transacted through money devalues anything that does not involve buying and selling.

The answer to reclaiming the commons is not automatic recourse to a larger public sector; the cause is not served by an enlargement of the bureaucratic state. The state can destroy the commons as effectively as the market can, as the experience of former communist countries demonstrated. Environmental destruction was as bad there as under capitalism and, as Czech playwright Václav Havel has eloquently explained, the social commons withered as the state tried to occupy every inch of social space.

By the same token, market arrangements, conducted on the right scale, actually can enhance the commons. The neighborhood coffee shop and stores on a traditional Main Street are crucial to the fabric of community, for example. We need to recognize that the commons is distinct from both government and market, and requires a legal framework of its own.

We need new ground rules to protect our common property, just as there are rules to protect our individual or private property. This is a crucial point. A market is not an act of nature; it does not arise spontaneously nor was it divinely ordained. Societies create markets and societies sustain them. Take away the legal and institutional structure created by government–the money system, the banking and securities laws, the protection of copyrights and patents, the defense of foreign oil production, and so on–and the modern market economy could not exist.

If the market requires such an array of props, it is not surprising that the commons needs a few as well. The possibilities are without end. The important social functions of traditional business districts can be defended by taking away the subsidies for sprawl development in the tax laws, the highway program, and antiquated zoning laws. We can set aside more space on public airwaves for community, as opposed to corporate, use so that radio and television serve less as media for electronic huckstering and more as a village tree.

Steps like these would not mean government intrusion into more economic and social space. To the contrary, they would make it possible for something besides corporations to occupy this space. To put this another way, the so-called ‘tragedy of the commons’–that a commons is inevitably fated to be overused–is a myth. The commons simply requires the right protective arrangements–just like the market has.

Of course, many people are already tackling the issues related to the commons, and with some success. What’s missing is a common theme that connects all this important work. For decades people have been fighting separate battles, plugging holes in a thousand dikes. They’ve been fighting pollution of the natural and cultural environments. They’ve been trying to stop the commercializing of the public schools and advertising assaults upon their kids. They’ve been battling traffic, sprawl, noise, the patenting of life–so many battles that it’s hard to keep track.

It is time now to declare that these are really aspects of the same cause. They are not just assertions of a vague ‘public interest.’ They are not, as conservatives often charge, attempts to violate property rights. They seek rather to protect a property right–a common property right.

We need to declare that atmospheric pollution is not just a health threat. It is a violation of common property rights. Sprawl is not just an inefficient use of land and energy. It depletes the social commons, which rarely thrives in a world of freeways and malls. The commercial invasion of childhood is not just a matter of more obese and hyperactive kids. It involves a larger question of who creates the stories that young people are told, and to what ends.

For decades the libertarian right has been fighting what it calls ‘takings’ of private property by government. Now it’s time to fight the taking of what belongs to us all.

Adapted from Yes! A Journal of Positive Futures (Summer 2001). Subscriptions: $24/yr. (4 issues) from Box 10818, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110.

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