Tragedy of the Uncommons (Part 1)

February 28, 2022

I’ve been working on my notions of private property for weeks now. Actually, one might say that I’ve been trying to determine my relationship to the concept of owning property for much of my life, though the recent activity was inspired by ideas on property ownership presented in The Dawn of Everything. But this idea of private property has always been a niggling problem for me. I don’t own things readily. I’d rather just be able to use what I need to make my life and give back as I go. However, ownership seems to be the goal for most humans around me. So it’s been confusing.

This project has now gone beyond one article, or one that anyone wants to read in one go anyway. Today, I’d like to look at the relationship between property and care and the idea that property must be owned to be cared for, or at least “invested in”. Later, I’m going to take on the idea of private property in and of itself, mostly through the framework of enclosure and colonialism.

So for today: who cares about private property?

The way I see it, ideas on property and ownership might be fundamentally divided more or less by gender. Not biophysically, though it may be rooted in biology as female bodies are primarily responsible for generative acts and labor. Women can’t walk away from reproduction like men can. But the divide is culturally mediated based on that biological divide, and it closely parallels care work. Those who do this work understandably tend not to want to acquire more of it and so tend to prefer to live without ownership beyond what is necessary.

Of course, humans do need access to a certain amount of stuff. We need food and shelter. We need clothing. We probably need art and music, or at least the ability to make our lives beautiful. So there is a tension. We need to use stuff, some of which we will consume, but we don’t want to be over-burdened with the care of stuff, which is what property ownership entails.

Those who argue (exhaustively…) in favor of ownership tend to view owned property — from women and children to land and stuff — as for their own exclusive use, their right to do with as they will with no recourse to others. This means they bear no responsibility to maintain that property for others — or even themselves in some future time. They can destroy their property. Waste is completely within their rights. They do not have to take on the responsibility of keeping it intact unless they are moved by some generosity that they feel is a badge of honor. Those who champion private property the loudest seem to believe that good stewardship is beyond the call of duty. They do not have to care and they tend not to. When that burden of care is lifted, when property can be squandered in whatever manner is most personally profitable (in the short term usually), then there is incentive to acquire more and more and more of it — and care for none of it.

On the other hand good stewards abhor acquiring property because with ownership comes the responsibility to maintain it and care for it and keep it viable. People who care for property don’t like having a lot of it. A steward does not destroy. (I should say that most women abhor destruction just in principle; it is eminently impractical.) A good steward tends to put more into the property than they take out — they pass it on in better shape. This labor of care is not done because it looks good on them. It is not meritorious, something to be lauded and recognized. It is necessary work. It the least a human must do. It is also largely not fun in and of itself. Some of it is outright painful. So there is no incentive to increase the load beyond what is needed to maintain a good life. Good stewards do not tend to be acquisitive.

There are plenty of men who view property through this lens of care and tend to look askance at the whole business of ownership. As I said this is not a biophysical divide, but it is a gendered divide in most human cultures over the last 3000 years. I believe it is a construct of culture, like gender. And it is largely the female gender that sees the work entailed in ownership — because in our cultures it is largely the female gender that does the work entailed in ownership. Hence this gender is not generally keen on ownership.

Still, we do care. We care about the world we live in. We care about the quality of our lives. And we take care of that which we do care for. But not because we own it. Care for property — whether owned or not — is done because it makes us happier and healthier. And frankly, care work is an ethical obligation for those who care. It is what we deeply feel we should do. So it irks me when the cheerleaders for private property turn the tables and say that those who don’t own don’t take care — because there is no incentive to “invest” in un-owned property.

This is a common refrain from private property’s defenders: those who do not own, do not care for their property. Renters won’t “invest” in repairs and improvements simply because there will be no return. Every time I slam into that assertion I want to cry because it is so completely backwards and wrong. Yes, young people will be young people — they don’t clean up their rooms where they own them — and many people these days do not mature out of that life stage. (I suspect a number of those who talk about taking care of one’s surroundings in terms of looking for return on investment are in this state of arrested development.) But people who rent — for farming or for housing — are not those who are destroying property. Nor are they reluctant to invest in their homes or farms. They live there; they farm there. That’s all the inspiration most humans need to invest in their surroundings. That’s sort of the main job in a human life — to make a nourishing home. They aren’t investing in property; they’re investing in themselves. More accurately, they’re living; they’re not really “investing” at all.

So this claim that we need to own something to be inspired to nurture and care for it? It seems to me that the opposite is true. It is less likely that “property as investment” will be well tended than “property as home”. Really, it can’t be. To make a monetary return on an investment, you have to earn more than you invested into the property. So you can’t spend that much. In other terms, there is a strong disincentive to improving property when you are using it as investment. We all know this. It is common sense. Property as investment is almost always degraded and destroyed, through active efforts as much as neglect. Hence clear cutting and mountain-top removal mining and fracking — and typical rental housing in low rent neighborhoods.

The people who talk about property as investment are not renters, and it seems to me as if they do not even know renters — aside from their own kids maybe. I do know renters. I’ve lived in many dominantly rented communities. I’ve known more farmers who rented land than owned it. My sons are both renters (who grew up cleaning their rooms…). My parents are now renters again. None of these people consider their homes and farms an “investment”. Not in the financial sense. If it is an investment, it is an investment in living, in being healthy and happy and comfortable, in producing good food and beautiful things, in being human. And humans take care of things when they are not deluded by this idea of ownership as financial investment.

It should also be said that most of the people who rent do so because they are not given the chance to own. They do not have access to the subsidies and easy financial opportunities of the dominant property owning class. They do not have the income or inherited wealth to build up a down payment. And there are substantial obstructions and legacies of past constraints that inhibit many people from qualifying for a mortgage or buying a property outright, even when they have the wealth. (If you do not know about these things, I encourage you to read Chuck Collins, Isabel Wilkerson, Nell Irvin Painter, Edward Baptist, Ibram X. Kendi, and Howard Zinn, among others. Then listen to “Seeing White” — at least — from Scene on Radio.)

In any case, this is not an investment choice they get to make. They don’t decide to rent because they don’t want to spend their lives putting their resources and labor into the place they live or farm. They decide to rent, hoping that one day they might get to do just that, they might get to own. Because as owners they are not constrained by a lease. They can improve their property. They can alter it. They can use it freely and nurture it. They can at least hang family photos on the walls without incurring rather disproportionate penalties. Every human would like to be free to make their own lives, and in our society property ownership is one of the few paths to freedom.

In a sense, those who claim that ownership is necessary to making property upgrades are correct. It is much easier to be a good steward in this culture if you own your property. But that’s not due to the lack of financial incentive. Renting itself — viewing property as investment — makes caring for homes and land very difficult. There is a conflict between an owner’s need to wrench money out the investment and the renter’s need to tailor a property to their lives. It’s not that they’re not motivated; they’re not allowed to “invest in improvements”. Many improvements are simply not options for many renters. You can’t put in new insulation or throw solar panels up on the roof or tear down the garage to plant an orchard. Most renters are severely constrained by lease terms to leave the property in the condition they found it — even to the point of limiting their ability to increase the property’s value! And then there is the continual risk of losing whatever work you put into your home when an owner decides to raise rent beyond your means (or just evict you for any other random reason…).

It is not lack of will, not a reluctance to spend money that will not be returned. People want to care for themselves by caring for the spaces they inhabit. They will gladly spend all the resources that they have access to in making and maintaining a home. This is what people have been doing for hundreds of thousands of years. People care for their homes and land whether owned or rented. And really, when it comes down to it, there is little difference between paying a mortgage and paying rent. It is “property as investment” that becomes an impediment to improvement, not “property as rented home”. Investment property is not even well maintained, never mind improved.

Here’s a recent illustration from my life. Son#2 had a leak in the corner of his kitchen ceiling that came from the plumbing above his apartment. This began about two years ago. He attempted to get property management to fix it. He attempted to fix it himself. There was no question of the leak being something that should be fixed. (The water was foul; there was mold…) There was also no question — being that it originated outside his apartment in another space to which he had no legal or physical access — that fixing this leak was the responsibility of the owners… But there is still a plastic bucket catching nasty water in that corner.

(I should point out that my son is a relatively wealthy white man. I’m fairly certain more attention is paid to him than others in his building. And yet this is the level of care that his apartment receives.)

Of course, we all know that this is the common song among renters of all types of property right down through the ages. Charles Dickens virtually made a career out of this one sad story. The reality of renting is precisely the opposite of those claiming that renters do not care for property because they lack incentive. Those who consider property a financial investment are the ones with no incentive to improve it, or even maintain it. Son#2 does not get a discount on his rent even though the apartment he is renting is now in worse condition than when he signed the lease for a set payment. If he did, perhaps there would be an incentive to invest in fixing the leak. As the law stands — in a legal code made by property owners, by the way — property owners are guaranteed their income no matter the state of the property. They lose money on investment if they have to spend more to keep the property in good repair. They earn the same rent but have to pay increased expenses. So, of course they are going to drag their feet on every dime spent to keep the property standing. That margin of income over expense is the return on investment when you don’t spend your life in a space. It is the only incentive to own “property as investment”.

However, when you do spend you life in a space, there is much more incentive to care about it. And while there are plenty of renters who are not good stewards, I’m going to bet that most of them are very good at care work. Because think about it: who are these renters? Well, the majority of the people who rent are also those people who are in low wage jobs — the low wage jobs of care work. Renters are society’s stewards. They clean your home. They tend to your children. They plant and harvest all the food and process it and cook it and serve it to you. They care for your gardens. They mend and wash your clothing. Quite often they also do all the repair work in these days of fading union strength. These are the professionals of care work. They are very good at their jobs or we would all be dead. Moreover they take pride in the work that they do even though it is not well remunerated. They do work that is not an investment in the financial sense; they work to make a life, not merely a living. And this carries over into their home spaces.

Young people and immature idiots notwithstanding, most rented homes are kept immaculate, tended to lovingly and creatively. Because living in filth and disorder is uncomfortable. It grates against all we know and intuit about the nature of a home. Humans do not like discomfort. No animal does. The only animal that willingly lives in cold misery is homo economicus (which phrase is a travesty of both words…) because this beast suffers from the delusion of property as investment, not home as a place to enact life.

Let me turn the tables back around again. The kind of person who is looking for a monetary return on property is very likely not living with that property. An owner who wants to take more out of the property than they put in has only a few options for doing that. They can rent out property, keeping rent as high as they can while holding maintenance expenses as low as they can. Or they can extract whatever value the property contains — minerals, wood, soil nutrition, space for “development”, labor (in some of the nastiest forms of property ownership) — and derive money from those things. Or they can buy a property and then sell it for a higher price. None of these relationships are caring stewardship, nor are they particularly long term. These are also, notably, not improvements to the property; they are improvements to the wealth of the owner.

If you are investing in property, then you probably are not putting care work toward a home and toward your life. Also, I have to say that if you need a monetary reward for taking care of your home, then you might be living life wrong. If you are painting the walls of your home so that it increases the value that you might get out of selling that home and not so that it increases its value to you, then you are not making a home for yourself. You are also not putting care for the property into the property. You are just trying to get more money out of it when you move on and abandon whatever work you’ve done. In many ways, you’re wasting your time and effort — and life.

Having a good life seems a much richer reward for work done. And a good life is only obtained through living it, not investing in it. So we come full circle… Care work is both an obligation and a source of joy. Care work is done — regardless of ownership — by people who care. For the property. For those around them. And for themselves. It is not motivated by monetary reward (because we sure aren’t getting monetary rewards…). It is done for the reward of a life well-lived. What the “property as investment” people never seem to learn is that you don’t need to earn money if you have a good life…

Because investors? They’re only chasing after some future dollar that will never buy them a home.


Teaser Photo by Luke Stackpoole on Unsplash

Eliza Daley

Eliza Daley is a fiction. She is the part of me that is confident and wise, knowledgable and skilled. She is the voice that wants to be heard in this old woman who more often prefers her solitary and silent hearth. She has all my experience — as mother, musician, geologist and logician; book-seller, business-woman, and home-maker; baker, gardener, and chief bottle-washer; historian, anthropologist, philosopher, and over it all, writer. But she has not lived, is not encumbered with all the mess and emotion, and therefore she has a wonderfully fresh perspective on my life. I rather like knowing her. I do think you will as well.

Tags: building resilient societies, care work, private property, the commons