Subsistence and the Commons

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Published

November 21, 2005
Inequality Matters: The Growing Economic Divide in America and Its Poisonous Consequences, edited by James Lardner and David A. Smith

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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.

In the American South, the commons took the form of law and custom allowing people to hunt, fish, and even graze cattle on land they did not own, as long as the owner put no fence around it.  Private property rights yielded to the needs of subsistence — to common rights.  The commons sup­port­ed slaves during their long bondage, and after the war it gave a measure of independence to former slaves and poor whites alike.  Which is why, of course, it had to go.

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.

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