Our Dangerous Distance Between the Private and the Commons


May 27, 2004
Christian Science Monitor


Browse in Commons

My wife’s village in the Philippines consists mostly of bamboo houses perched on hills that rise gently from the rice fields. The hills are lush, the fields neat and well-tended; one almost forgets how poor these people are, in Western terms at least. My wife’s father gets about $ 750 a year for his crop – a lot compared with sharecroppers who have little besides the rice they eat and clothes they wear.

Life is not easy. Yet there is a sense of sufficiency and contentment that is not much found in the US. There is time; daily life is not a grim march to the metronome of clocks. There is also the abundance of nature – coconut, banana, and mango trees, sweet potatoes and swamp cabbage, the chickens and goats that fill the yards. None of these appear in the stern accountings of Western economists who pronounce upon the poverty of such people.

Most of all, there is the rice, which is both livelihood and sustenance, the center of everything.

“If you have rice under the house,” my father-in-law says, “you do not have worries.”

The rice fields are productive in another way, too. By unspoken agreement, villagers can walk across the narrow dikes that define each farmer’s land, to get where they need to go. Private property becomes to this extent a commons; boundaries that divide tend also to tie people together. The fields help produce community as well as rice, and this is both a reflection and reinforcement of a social cohesion that pervades daily life there.

No, it’s not idyllic. People being people, feuds and animosities are not unknown. But bonds of mutual supportare strong. Studies have shown that Filipinos consider themselves happy to a greater degree than their statistical poverty might suggest. I could not help thinking that those paths through the rice fields point to one reason why.

America was once a lot like this. The concept of property early settlers had wasn’t a walled fortress; it was a permeable membrane that sought to reconcile the parts and the whole. Early New Englanders built their towns around a commons, a shared pasture for livestock. Private woodlands were open to others for hunting or cutting wood, unless owners fenced them.

Water law, so important in the new land, reflected this desire for balance. You could use the water that ran through your land, but not in a way that diminished your neighbor’s use. The water belongs to all of us, the law said, and ownership has responsibilities as well as rights.

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which laid out a plan of government for what is now much of the upper Midwest, declared that the main waterways there “shall be common highways and forever free.”

Such thinking isn’t a quaint relic of a simpler time. It’s rooted in a fundamental economic truth – namely, the symbiosis between the private and the common.

Private property couldn’t exist without a society that honors and protects it. The value of property derives largely from the efforts of others, or gifts of nature. Take a Park Avenue apartment, or a Cape Cod cottage, put it in a cornfield or urban slum, and you’d better reduce the asking price. The structure is the same; the difference is what’s around it. The real estate mantra “location, location, location” really means “gifts, gifts, gifts” – of society and nature. This is true of financial assets as well as real estate. In fact, it’s true to a degree of all human production and creation. Every invention, business technique, story, and song draws on what has come before. I couldn’t write this, nor you read it, without the English language – a gift to both of us. We all stand on many shoulders; and earlier concepts of property acknowledged this.

Nowhere was this thinking more evident than in the realm of invention and ideas. America itself is an idea, the first nation so conceived; so the views of the Founders on this point are especially telling. Jefferson and Madison considered the mind to be the mother lode of freedom, and they wanted no restrictions – private or public – on its fruits. The copyright and patent clause of the Constitution generally restricts these private monopolies to limited times; and this provision is of a piece with the First Amendment protections of freedom of speech.

Benjamin Franklin was no slouch when it came to a dollar – yet he didn’t seek patents for his numerous inventions. “As we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad to serve others by any invention of ours,” he said.

There were contrary views, of course, and these soon gained the upper hand, being more congenial to moneyed interest. But the sense of affiliation with a whole persisted, in folkways as well as public policy. There were the frontier barn raisings and harvest bees in which work and time became a commons neighbors could draw from. There was the Main Street culture that combined the commercial with the social and civic. Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas held their famous debates at county fairgrounds and town squares throughout Illinois.

Democracy wasn’t separate from the setting in which it occurred; and farmers and townspeople, many with little formal schooling, sat in the baking sun for hours to listen.

The next hundred years brought unprecedented change. Yet even as the new commercial culture wove webs of self- obsession, residues of the older thinking remained. People shopped on Main Streets. They visited with neighbors on stoops and porches. Entertainment was a social experience, at bowling alleys, movie theaters, and ball parks. Such remnants were a resource on which the nation could draw in times of need, such as World War II. When FDR declared that sacrifice in the cause of freedom was a “privilege,” and that he stood for “equality of privilege,” his words touched something Americans already believed. The top income tax bracket went up to over 90 percent, and ordinary workers paid the tax for the first time. Young men were subject to a universal draft. Millions grew vegetables in Victory Gardens and turned in used cooking oil and old pots and pans to supply war materiel.

There was grumbling and cheating to be sure. But the residents of one Kansas town probably echoed the prevailing view when they observed in a newsletter to their sons on the front: “We do not have everything we want. We do have everything we need.”

Today, that sentiment seems to come from another galaxy. When brave, young Americans went off to fight in Iraq, there was skittish concern in Washington that the rest of us actually might have to sacrifice something to support them. Political leaders cut taxes and urged us to go shopping. Not only is there no draft, but an increasing share of the burden is shunted to mercenaries.

Whatever one thought of the invasion of Iraq, when patriotism becomes a market transaction, purchased by most on the cheap, that’s cause for concern. Some will blame the ’60s, Eastern intellectuals, and the rest. But the true source of this shift lies in the pathways of daily life.

We live, after all, in suburbs conceived as staging areas for personal consumption rather than for social interaction. We move about in the hermetic enclosures of cars, shop in malls designed to exclude anything that might interfere with the buying mood.

We barricade our attention in electronic cocoons of iPods and cellphones. Family car trips once were occasions for storytelling that built a narrative bond between generations. Now kids sit in back and watch DVD’s. Then we wonder why parents have trouble communicating with kids – why we feel lonely, isolated, and depressed.

Step by step, the paths through our “rice fields” have become walled corridors of one.

A reason for today’s bitter, polarized politics is that people don’t have to talk with those they don’t agree with anymore. They just retreat into their cocoons of the like-minded where all they hear is echoes of themselves. They lose the capacity to tolerate – let alone listen to – anyone who thinks differently.

Common space itself is under assault, from noise, development, and commercial importuning. Giant Coke bottles that now stand atop the storied left field wall in Boston’s Fenway Park are more than an advertisement. They’re a symbol of dominance – a kind that extends to virtually every corner of our society. From patent claims to body parts and the gene pool, to proposals to auction off the sea, there is a pervasive grabbiness that causes the private to devolve into its linguistic root “privation.”

Not surprisingly, there are increasing efforts to restore balance. The environmental movement is evidence of this, as is the resistance to ads on bases at baseball games, to cellphone noise in public places, to privatizing water, and to the patenting of life. Linux, the computer operating system developed entirely through a commons on the World Wide Web, bespeaks a desire to reclaim the free open spaces of the mind, without either governmental restriction or private claim.

Politicians haven’t paid much heed. They still talk as though life were a contest between government programs and market forces, with little besides families around and between. But that will change.

The quest to reclaim the commons is America’s new freedom movement, and increasingly its pursuit of happiness as well.

Jonathan Rowe, a former Monitor writer, is director of the Tomales Bay Institute.