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The Common Good
An argument for asserting our rights to quiet, community, a drink of pure water, and a breath of fresh air.
by Jonathan Rowe

(page 3 of 3)

When economists do acknowledge the commons it is mainly to disparage it. The problem is not encroachment by the market, they say, but by commoners themselves. This view, usually called the "tragedy thesis," maintains that a commons is inherently prone to overuse and thus is at odds with conservation. Declare a lake a commons, the theory goes, and it's just an invitation to motorboats and Jet Skis.

Yet like much of what passes for economics today, the so-called tragedy thesis is unburdened by inquiry into how life — in this case the commons — has actually worked through the ages. The fact is, all over the world in a wide range of settings, people have found ways to manage limited resources such as water so that there is enough for all. What this thesis overlooks, said historian E. P. Thompson, "is that the commoners themselves were not without common sense."

It is testimony to the intransigence of economic belief that in the face of market tragedy on all sides, from the collapse of Enron and WorldCom to the geopolitical tensions surrounding oil, it is still the supposed tragedy of the commons that preoccupies the economic mind. Any property arrangement — private, public, common — can be tragic without a governing structure of custom or law. The market itself would collapse without the props the government has erected, such as the Federal Reserve Board, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and military protection of the sea lanes. Even with them, the market often fails.

So it's not surprising that the commons needs a legal structure too. Some commons don't require much. The Internet, sidewalks, and public squares need only basic ground rules. The main challenge is to keep the market — and sometimes the government — from fencing or despoiling them. Other commons require more. The knowledge commons needs public libraries to provide access, for example. Community gardens need rules for plot size, open hours, and work assignments for common areas. Water requires a delivery system and safeguards to keep it pure.

Then there are large commons, such as the oceans and sky, that have become dumps. This is where the tragedy thesis has some validity, and the current policy vogue is, accordingly, to impose a private-property regime. To deal with air pollution, for example, the government allocates permits to polluters that they can sell to one another like taxi medallions. The allocations bestow a right to pollute, which means a property right to the sky.

But something is missing from this scenario — namely us owners. If the sky is a commons, then it belongs to all of us. Why should our government bestow upon corporations the right to sully our sky for free — a right they can turn around and sell for money? That question is the starting point for Sky Trust, a proposal that would transform "market-based" environmentalism — which purports to turn the mechanisms of the market to nonpolluting and conserving ends — into something more commons-based.

Under Sky Trust, polluters would pay rent to us commoners. Strict caps would limit the overall amount of pollution, and polluters would bid on the permissible dump space that remained. The rent would go to a trust, which could use a portion of it for specified public purposes, while the rest would come directly back to the owners in the form of dividend checks.

It would work much like the Alaska Permanent Fund, which distributes oil revenues from state lands. But there is a crucial difference. In Alaska, more drilling means bigger dividend checks, so the fund disposes Alaskans to support oil development. With Sky Trust, by contrast, greater revenues would result from tighter caps, for the same reason that apartment rents go up as the number of available units shrinks. Essentially, Americans would enjoy a larger cash dividend from cleaner air.

Most commons-based policy does not attempt to mesh with the market in this way. To the contrary, it establishes boundaries against the overreaching of the market, and enclaves in which a different kind of social organization can flourish. For example, community gardens help stop private development, public libraries help prevent the enclosure of knowledge, and seed banks protect the genetic commons from the enclosure of biotech firms. Each specific commons needs its own laws and institutional structures, just as there are different laws for, say, banking and automobile repair.

In the 1830s, an observer in Manchester, England, noted one aspect of the plight of the new industrial labor class. "The commons on which the labourers indulged in healthful sports are enclosed," he wrote, and fences "prevent the humble operative from enjoying the verdure of the foliage or the fragrance of the flowers." These workers had been banished from their ancestral commons. They were toiling inhuman hours in "satanic" mills. And now their last refuge, the urban commons, was closed to them as well. "The whistling of birds is not for us," a trade union magazine lamented. "Our melody is the deafening noise of the engine."

When the fields and forests of old England were enclosed, the commons did not end. Rather it took a different form to meet a changing human need. The preindustrial commons provided livelihood and material sustenance, and in the developing world, it still plays that role. There are residues even in the United States, where rural people hunt for food on public lands, and urban dwellers fish in rivers that pass near their homes.

But increasingly the commons today meets a different kind of need: refuge from the market and its frenzied pace. It provides such things as open space, access to nature, the conviviality of public squares. The commons still meets basic material needs as well — the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the forests and aquifers that cleanse and replenish these. But even here, it produces by not producing in the narrow economic sense. Each new step of market encroachment has increased the need for counter-production of this kind — for quiet instead of noise, for open space instead of development, for seed banks instead of genetically modified organisms.

The developed world has turned an economic corner, one that most economists have not grasped. For eons the challenge was to make and do — to fill the void of material scarcity with the fruits of human ingenuity and toil. That challenge continues in the developing world, where it is especially urgent to find ways to develop without cannibalizing the natural life-support system, as industrialized nations have done.

But increasingly, our challenge is to leave things alone, to let nature and society do the work the market cannot do and, in fact, tends to destroy. In this new, yet old, parallel economy of well-being, the commons plays the central role. This is not just a matter of utility, important as that is. It is also about freedom. Centuries ago the market emerged as an agency of freedom, breaking the shackles of the feudal past.

But now the market is creating shackles of its own, as it confines us to the enclosures of its own making — its copyrighted knowledge, its patented seeds, its denuded forests, its public spaces sealed increasingly against any form of human expression other than the commercial.

To reclaim the commons is, ultimately, to reclaim a part of ourselves. "The market economy is not everything," economist Wilhelm Ropke — a conservative — observed half a century ago. "It must find its place within a higher order of things that is not ruled by supply and demand." That larger order includes the commons that sustains it and life itself.

Jonathan Rowe has written for the Christian Science Monitor, Washington Monthly, and U.S. News and World Report. He is director of the Tomales Bay Institute.

On The Web: For more information, go to friendsofthecommons.org.


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