A brief history of how we lost the commons

March 11, 2013

As a Republican Alaska governor Walter Hickel said, “If you steal $10 from a man’s wallet, you’re likely to get into a fight, but if you steal billions from the commons, co-owned by him and his descendants, he may not even notice.”

In the beginning, the commons was everywhere. Humans roamed through it, hunting and gathering to meet their needs. Like other species, we had territories but these were communal to the tribe, not private to the person.

Agriculture arose about ten thousand years ago and along with it came permanent settlements and private property. Rulers granted ownership of land to loyal families. Often, military leaders distributed conquered land to their soldiers.

Despite the growth of private property, much land remained part of the commons. In Roman times, bodies of water, shorelines, wildlife, and air were explicitly classified as res communes, resources available to all. During the Middle Ages, kings and feudal lords often claimed title to rivers, forests, and wild animals, often to have such claims periodically rebuked. The Magna Carta, which King John of England was forced to sign in 1215, established forests and fisheries as res communes.

In the 17th century, English philosopher John Locke sought to find a balance between the commons and private property. He believed that God gave the earth to “mankind in common,” but that some private property is justified because it spurs humans to work. The trick is to get the right balance. People should be able to acquire private property, but only up to a limit. That limit is set by two considerations: first, it should be no more than they can make productive through their labor, and second, it has to leave “enough and as good in common” for others. This was consistent with English common law at the time, which held, for example, that landowners could draw water from a stream or river for their own use, but couldn’t diminish the supply available to others.

Despite Locke’s quest for balance, the great majority of the English commons was later enclosed, which is to say privatized. Local gentry, backed by Parliament, fenced off village lands and converted them to private holdings. Impoverished peasants then drifted to cities and became industrial workers.

One observer of this transformation was Thomas Paine, the pamphleteer who spoke so eloquently for American independence. Seeing how enclosure of the commons benefited a few and disinherited many others, Paine proposed a remedy—not a reversal of enclosure, which he considered necessary for economic progress, but compensation for its loss.

Like Locke, Paine believed nature was a gift of God to all. “There are two kinds of property,” he wrote. “Firstly, natural property, or that which comes to us from the Creator of the universe—such as the earth, air, water. Secondly, artificial or acquired property—the invention of men.” In the latter, he reasoned, equality is impossible, but in the former, “all individuals have legitimate birthrights.” Since these birthrights were being diminished by enclosure, there ought to be a compensation for that loss. Paine proposed a “national fund” that would do two things:

[Pay] to every person, when arrived at the age of twenty-one years, the sum of fifteen pounds sterling, as a compensation in part, for the loss of his or her natural inheritance, by the introduction of the system of landed property: And also, the sum of ten pounds per annum, during life, to every person now living, of the age of fifty years, and to all others as they shall arrive at that age.

A century and a half later, the U.S. created a national fund to do part of what Paine recommended—we call it Social Security. We’ve yet to adopt the other part, but its basic principle—that enclosure of a commons requires compensation—is as sound in our time as it was in Paine’s.

The Fate of the Commons in America

In the years since European settlement, America developed its own relationship with the commons, which in our case included the vast lands we took from native people and Mexico. Some Americans, exemplified by Thomas Jefferson, saw our commons as the soil from which we could build a nation of prosperous small farmers and proprietors. This philosophy led to passage of laws such as the Land Ordinance of 1785, the Homestead Act, the Morrill Land Grant College Act, and the Reclamation Act, which allocated family size plots to settlers and financed schools to educate them. Many Americans, exemplified by Teddy Roosevelt, also cherished these lands for their wildness and beauty, which led to the establishment of national parks, wildlife preserves and wilderness areas.

At the same time, others in America viewed our common wealth as the means to their personal fortune, and lobbied or bribed government officials to give away priceless lands to railroads, mining and timber interests, and speculators.

If an accounting could be made of all the private appropriations of commons through the years—not just land but other valuable resources—it would total trillions of dollars. The plot is almost always the same: when a certain commons acquires commercial value, someone tries to grab it. In the old days, that meant politically connected individuals; nowadays, it means politically powerful corporations.

In 1995, for example, Congress decided it was time for Americans to shift from analog to digital television. This required a new set of broadcast frequencies, and Congress obligingly gave them—free of charge—to the same media companies to which it had previously given analog frequencies free of charge, despite the fact that the airwaves belong to all of us. Republican Senate leader Bob Dole opposed the giveaway. “It makes no sense,” he said, “that Congress would create a giant corporate welfare program. . . . The bottom line is that the [broadcasting] spectrum is just as much a national resource as our national forests. That means it belongs to every American equally.” But, just as before, the media companies got their free airwaves anyway.

What’s astonishing about these takings isn’t that they occur, but how unaware of them the average citizen is. As another Republican, former Secretary of the Interior and Alaska governor Walter Hickel said, “If you steal $10 from a man’s wallet, you’re likely to get into a fight, but if you steal billions from the commons, co-owned by him and his descendants, he may not even notice.”

Enclosure, in which property rights are literally taken or given away by government, is half the reason our commons is in such a steep decline today; the other half is a form of trespass called externalizing—that is, corporations shifting their costs onto the commons. Externalizing is as damaging as enclosure, yet much less noticed, since it occurs quietly and continuously, as in the case of pollution seeping into a river.

The one-two punch of enclosure and externalizing is especially destructive. With one hand, corporations take valuable stuff from the commons and privatize it. With the other hand, they dump bad stuff into the commons and pay nothing. The result is profits for corporations but a steady loss for everyone else, to whom the commons belong.

Capitalism Enters the Fray

Humans began ravaging nature long before capitalism was a gleam in Adam Smith’s eye. Modern capitalism, however, has exponentially enlarged the scale of that ravaging.

A century ago, land, resources, and places to dump wastes were abundant; capital itself was the limiting factor. That’s why rules and practices were developed that prioritized capital above all else.

In the 21st century, however, this is no longer the case. As economist Joshua Farley has noted, “If we want more fish on our dinner plates, the scarce factor isn’t fishing boats, it’s fish. If we want more timber, the scarce factor isn’t sawmills, it’s trees.”

The world today is awash with capital, most of it devoted to speculation. By contrast, healthy ecosystems are increasingly scarce. If anything deserves priority today, it’s nature’s capital, yet capitalism rolls on driven by the profit-maximizing demands of financial capital.

As a businessman and investor, I believe we can evolve to a new stage of capitalism, envisioned centuries ago by Locke and Paine, where corporations and the commons work in balance. But we have no time to waste.

Excerpted from Capitalism 3.0: A Guide to Reclaiming the Commons (Berrett-Koehler). Barnes, an entrepreneur who co-founded Working Assets, is co-founder of On the Commons.

Tags: history of the commons, private property, the commons