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.

| May/June 2013

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.

5/13/2013 11:49:07 PM

the democratic way of the commons - 'wally world' - just one of the reasons a 660 something mile long wall is being eyeballed as a solution to illegal immigration into the states. saw a picture just yesterday, wasnt china but a philippine slum - orphaned children living on a railway track bordered on either side by molding cardboard and lead painted old tin shantys overflowing there complete lack of proper infrastructure, with a commutor train rolling past, proudly displaying its 'this is a national park' billboard adhered to its side. just makes ya wanna go there dont it.