Southern planters faced a major dilemma after the Civil War. Not only had they lost their slaves; now many former slaves refused to work on the terms the planters offered. The freedmen had become too independent, it was said, and a big part of that newfound independence involved access to the commons.
Across the South in those years, planters did what their counterparts in England had done before: they closed the commons and declared private land off-limits, fenced or not, regardless of whether the owner put it to use. In England, the enclosures drove many commoners into the cities, where they supplied a desperate labor force for the mills. In the American South, the effect was to help force former slaves back into submission as sharecroppers or low-wage help. “Believing black dependency to be the handmaiden of work discipline,” Steven Hahn observed in The Roots of Southern Populism, “the planters moved to circumscribe the freedmen’s mobility and access to the means of production and subsistence.”
Today we associate the means of production and subsistence with the market, but that sets the frame too narrowly. From the moment the Pilgrims landed on Cape Cod, the commons was central to America’s material sufficiency. (For Native Americans, of course, it was almost the entire source of material sufficiency.) The first European settlers built towns around a shared pasture for livestock, which they actually called a commons. In North and South alike, private woodlands were open for hunting or wood-cutting unless owners fenced them. A Massachusetts ordinance of 1641 declared that “any man…may pass and repass on foot through any man’s property” to fish or fowl at common ponds.
Such provisions reflected a spirit that pervaded colonial life. Private property was not the walled fortress of today’s ideologues; it was a permeable membrane that sought to reconcile the parts and the whole. Over the centuries, though, the walls thickened as the castle grew.
Today the privatization of common wealth has reached historic heights. New technologies and the relentless appetite of the market have grabbed almost every inch of natural and social space. Our atmosphere has become a dump for physical wastes, our minds a sink for corporate come-ons. What we don’t widely realize is that these appropriations of common wealth are takings without compensation. It is not coincidental that, as these takings have accelerated, so has the gap between the rich and everyone else.
* * *
To resurrect the commons as a source of subsistence, it helps to start with things that are part of daily life. Like fishing. Some 35 million Americans fish, and a fair number of them live in cities. A visit to Hains Point on the Potomac River in Washington, or to the Oakland waterfront in California, would illustrate the point. Most cities are built on water and would be good fishing sites if the water were not so foul.
Or consider community gardens, small urban farms on land the gardeners themselves do not own. There are some 6,000 such gardens in the U.S., according to the American Community Gardening Association. That name might call to mind urban dilettantes with Smith and Hawken hoes; in fact, community gardens represent real production meeting real needs. The Food Project in Boston raises over 120,000 pounds of fresh vegetables on 21 acres; most of that goes to people who need it. In Philadelphia, urban gardeners save (by their own reckoning) some $700 a year on food bills.
But the needs of far more people could be served. There are some 70,000 parcels of vacant land in Chicago and 31,000 in Philadelphia; vacant lots occupy eighteen percent of Trenton, New Jersey. This land could become a prolific urban commons that helps ordinary people subsist. In 1943, in the midst of World War II, Americans raised half our supply of fresh vegetables in Victory Gardens, as they were then known. We could do as well today.
* * *
A modern economy, however, is mostly a monetary economy. It is therefore appropriate to think of the commons not just as a source of food but also as a source of money to meet subsistence needs. If the commons belongs to all of us, then financial returns from the commons should flow to all of us as well.
To be sure, commons should stay free when more use enhances the whole. For example, when more people use the Internet or the sidewalks (up to a point), those commons become more valuable for everyone and should therefore remain freely open to all. Many commons, however, are diminished by excessive use. In those cases, when one person takes, others become poorer. Extract minerals from public lands and there’s less left for future generations. Use the air as a waste dump and others breathe less freely. When the commons is diminished, the diminishers should pay the owners — which is to say, us.
A prototype for this sort of compensation is the Alaska Permanent Fund, which since 1976 has distributed income from state oil leases equally to all Alaskans. Each year, every adult and child in the state receives a dividend of around fifteen hundred dollars. This isn’t wealth redistribution; it is a return to owners for use of their property. Because the property in question is common, it is also the commons contributing to its members’ subsistence.
A similar model has been proposed as an antidote to climate change — a “sky trust” that charges dumpers of carbon into our atmosphere and returns the proceeds to all Americans equally. A bill co-sponsored by Senators Maria Cantwell of Washington and Susan Collins of Maine would set up such a mechanism; if enacted, it would pay dividends from atmospheric dumping fees to everyone. Conveniently, the higher the pollution charge, the higher the dividends. Less climate change and greater income would go together.
It’s possible to apply the same principle to other limited common assets: parking space, rush-hour driving lanes, the airwaves, minerals and timber on public lands. At the moment, however, we mostly do the opposite. American taxpayers spend more on roads for private timber companies operating on public land than we get back in fees for the timber they cut there. Thanks to the still-regnant Mining Law of 1872, removers of valuable minerals from public land pay a pittance for the profitable privilege. And broadcast companies pay nothing at all for the right to flood our airwaves with ads. All these sweetheart deals represent a massive squandering of common wealth. If broadcast companies paid to use our airwaves, that alone would earn us billions of dollars a year.
In the same way, commoners could also collect royalties for the patent monopolies we currently give to private corporations for free. The case for such royalties is especially compelling when we, as taxpayers, fund the research that leads to a patent, as often happens in the pharmaceutical sector.
Behind common-sense pricing of common assets lies a deeper vision of where wealth comes from. Virtually all “private” wealth emerges from a collaboration between individuals, society and nature. Though some beneficiaries dismiss this collaboration, it is indisputable that it occurs. The most “self-made” men and women draw upon a vast pool of knowledge they did not create. They benefit from schools, roads and other functions of government, including enforcement of contracts and property rights. Warren Buffett, whose candor is in the same league as his wealth, says that society is “responsible for a very significant percentage of what I’ve earned.”
If private wealth is partly commons wealth, there are monetary implications. One is that takers should pay for what they take, and those payments should go to everyone jointly or in equal shares. Another is that taxation should distinguish between wealth actually created and wealth taken from the commons. The former should be lightly taxed and the latter heavily.
This principle isn’t new; it informed the original income tax of 1913, which applied only to large “unearned” gains. Representative Dan V. Stephens of Nebraska spoke for many when he said that the new revenues should come from the “surplus wealth of the nation that has already been collected into private hands in abnormal proportions.” The income of ordinary working Americans was not taxed at all until World War II.
When we frame society’s taxing function this way — we should tax earned wealth lightly and taken wealth heavily — taxes will seem less an imposition and more an outgrowth of moral and economic principles. In the economy itself they won’t impede genuine wealth creation, but rather will encourage it.
We can’t go back to the days when woods and streams sustained daily life. But we can go back to the principles that made those commons sustaining and apply them to life today.