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Our Hidden Wealth

How the commons makes everything else work

This is the first chapter from the book Our Common Wealth: The Hidden Economy that That Makes Everything Else Work, a collection of writings from Jonathan Rowe (1946-2011). Rowe was a co-founder of On the Commons and a co-editor of On the Commons.org.

My wife grew up in what Western experts, not without condescension, call a “developing” country. The social life of her village revolved largely around a tree. People gathered there in the evening to visit, tell stories, or just pass the time. Some of my wife’s warmest childhood memories are of playing hide-and-seek late into the evening while adults chatted under the tree.

The tree was more than a quaint meeting place; it was an economic asset in the root sense of that word. It produced a bonding of neighbors, an information network, an activity center for kids, and a bridge between generations. Older people could be part of the flow of daily life, and children got to experience something scarce in the United States today—an unstructured and noncompetitive setting in which their parents were close at hand.

In the United States we spend hundreds of billions of dollars on everything from community centers to kiddie videos to try to achieve those results, with great inefficiency and often much less positive effect. Yet most Western economists would regard the tree as a pathetic state of underdevelopment.

They would urge “modernization,” by which they would mean cutting down the tree and making people pay money for what it provided. In their preferred vision, corporate-produced entertainment would displace local culture. Something free and available to all would become commodities
sold for a price. The result would be “growth” as economists understand that term.

That’s the story of the commons, a generic term (like the market and the state) that denotes wealth we share. To use this term is to evoke a puzzled pause. You mean the government? The common people? That park in Boston? In fact, the commons includes our entire life support system, both natural and social. The air and oceans, the web of species, wilderness and flowing water—all are parts of the commons. So are language and knowledge, sidewalks and public squares, the stories of childhood, the processes of democracy. Some parts of the commons are gifts of nature, others the product of human endeavor. Some are new, such as the Internet; others are as ancient as soil and calligraphy.

What they have in common is that they all “belong” to all of us, if that is the word. No one has exclusive rights to them. We inherit them jointly and hold them in trust for those who come after us. We are “temporary possessors and life renters,” as Edmund Burke wrote, and we “should not think it amongst [our] rights to commit waste on the inheritance.”

Though the commons is everywhere, it is nonetheless little noticed. For economists, it is a kind of inchoate mass that awaits the vivifying hand of the market to attain life. Forests are worthless until they become timber, just as quiet is worthless until it becomes advertising. In this way of seeing things, the enclosure of a commons is always a good thing. Money passes over the commons and says, “Let there be light.” The village tree becomes Fox Broadcasting, and trumpets blare in heaven.

So too in politics and the media, where the concept of the commons might as well not exist. There are no news reports on the condition of the commons, no speeches about it in the Senate. Newspapers have many pages of stock market reports but barely a word about wealth that belongs to all of us. Political debate is about the government versus the market. One camp wants to turn everything into something for sale, the other counters with programs of the state. It is a debate between Walmart and welfare, and it leaves no room for anything else.

But of course there is more. The value of the commons is beyond reckoning. Before we can protect it, though, we have to see it, and that is no small task. When we breathe the air or banter with neighbors on the sidewalk, it rarely occurs to us that we are using a commons. A commons has a quality of just being there. People don’t need a contract to breathe or an insurance policy to call a neighbor for help. Nor do commons require advertising. The market is always pushing “goods” and “services” in our faces, which might raise doubts as to whether they are really good or really serve. A commons, by contrast, quietly waits to be used.

Of course, seeing the commons is only a first step; the ultimate challenge is to protect it. The solution is not to create new government agencies or programs. Rather, it is to create rules, boundaries, and property rights to protect common wealth, just as we do for private wealth. This is a crucial point. Societies create private property and societies sustain it. Take away our legal and institutional supports and private property crumbles.

If private wealth requires such an array of props, it is not surprising that common wealth needs as many or more. Private property has lawyers, lobbyists, and bankers on its side. Common wealth, by contrast, is poorly organized, cash-short, and inherently nonaggressive. In other words, it needs help.

What forms should such help take? The government should not run a commons any more than it should run businesses, but it can and should set boundaries. For example, it can restrict suburban sprawl through zoning, reserve more of the public airwaves for noncommercial use, and keep the Internet from being taken over by large corporations. Steps like these would not mean more government intrusion into economic, environmental, and social space. Rather, they would make it possible for something besides corporations to occupy these spaces.

Regarding the natural environment, the case is especially strong. The oceans and atmosphere do not belong to government or private corporations. They belong to all of us, and we need institutions that refl ect this. One can imagine, for example, trusts that receive polluters’ payments and distribute them to all of us as owners. Such institutions would reflect the fact that there are common rights to clean air and
water, just as there are private rights to the factories that pollute them. Put commoners in charge of the air, let us charge polluters for using it, and we’ll see a lot less pollution than we do now.