The Comedy of the Neglected Private


August 16, 2006


Browse in Commons

In the belief system called “economics” it is an article of faith that a commons is inherently tragic. Inherently and by definition.  What belongs to all belongs to none; and only private ownership can rescue a resource from the sad fate that will otherwise befall it.  Just look at urban brown fields, clear-cut forests and the strip mines in Appalachia.  Oh wait. Those were owned privately, by corporations.

Economics texts nortwithstanding, private ownership is no guarantee of wise use, only of use that yields short-term monetary gain. At the same time, common ownership has worked wonderfully throughout the ages, provided there is a governing structure of law or local custom.  Today I’d like to add a corollary –  the comedy of the neglected private.  Private ownership actually can help a commons, provided the owners don’t pay much attention and don’t worry about financial gain the way the textbooks say they should.

Take the corner lot on Main Street in my town, the one next to the Bovine Bakery. I’ve written here before of how some friends and I have turned the lot into an impromptu commons.  We put out a couple of old garden benches, added a bunch of tree stumps, and now people use them regularly without a thought for how they got there.

This commons has produced not tragedy but rather small-town comedy in the root sense of that word..  I have to go down and tighten the bolts on the benches once in a while.  Big deal.

What makes this possible is that the owner of the lot doesn’t much care.  He’s an older man who lives about twenty miles away and for whatever reason has been happy to let the lot sit empty.  He does get a bit of rental income from a man who operates a bike rental business out of a trailer, and from a women who sells tie-dyed shirts on week-ends from a little shack.  That’s less than pennies compared to what real estate out here can fetch.

We are told the relentless pursuit of gain brings benefits to all.  But in this case the benefit has come from the owner’s indifference to gain – that is, when the invisible hand takes a break.

We’ve heard the owner has gone into a home, which raises concerns about the heirs.  Will the property fall to the son or daughter with an MBA who will look at the family  inventory and see – horrors — an underperforming asset?  Will the lot be sold to conform to the strict code of economically correct behavior, or to appease a petulant sibling?

We are discussing contingency plans.  But meanwhile it is clear that the threat to our commons is not the inherent “tragedy” of it, but rather the tragedy that might arise from a profit-maximizing private owner of it.

Another example came up in the Boston Globe last week-end.  For generations, residents of Hingham, a town between Boston and Cape Cod, used to go to small beach called Little Beach by walking across something Melville Walk.  Technically the Walk belonged to three families.  But nobody seemed to care.  Locals used it, there was no trouble, and everyone was happy.

Then the Stimsons came.  Robert Stimson is a financial analyst who moved from California with his wife and two kids to take up residence in his home town.  They bought a plot of land on Meville Walk, tore down the cottage, and put up a $1.3 million, 5,700 square foot house.  Then they sicced their lawyers on the matter of Melville Walk.  A fence appeared, and a No Trespassing sign.  Locals protested; and now the matter is in court.

By the usual reckonings the Stimsons have done us all a service. Their fence probably has increased their property value, which shows up in the economic ledgers as “wealth creation .”  But what about the wealth their neighbors lost as a result?  Economists and bankers don’t count it, but that doesn’t make it any less real.  When Melville Walk was a commons by virtue of benign private indifference, that was wealth creation too, of a kind that the enclosure by the attentive new owner has threatened to destroy.

Cynthia Stimson, Robert’s wife, thought she was the victim.  “If you haven’t been here for 50 years, they hate you,” she said. “They hate new people. They hate young people. They hate people whose house is bigger than theirs.”

But maybe they just don’t like people who put up fences to keep them from the beach.  The Globe also quoted Amyra O’Connell, 50, who grew up playing on Little Beach. “The spirit of a neighborhood is being broken here,” she said. “It was a family beach. And no one ever questioned that it wasn’t.”

(A Previous post on beach access is here.)