The Stairway to Heaven, part 2: Defining the Commons

Imagine that there is a formerly-lush land, now plagued by a multi-year drought. People still live there, mind you — the land hasn’t been abandoned. It’s still being worked, it’s still being developed, it’s still being inhabited. People need things like food and water, which are becoming increasingly scarce due to the drought. Given that, what would you say if a company, working with expired permits, was pumping water out of the local watersheds in order to bottle it and sell it around the world? Does that seem right to you?

Now let’s take the case of a cattle rancher. He owns cows. Cows need food. So this rancher, a clever fellow, lets his cows feed on public land, thus saving himself the expense of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of feed. Does that seem right to you? Should someone be putting a stop to that?

Finally, let’s imagine a chemical company. They discover a chemical that, when applied to metal, makes it so nothing will stick to that metal. Unfortunately, the production of this chemical results in a number of toxic by-products, which the company disposes of by pouring them into a local river, where they make their way into the water supply. How do you feel about that? Does that seem right to you?

Each of these scenarios deals with the concept of the Commons. The Commons are that which belongs to the people, and which are entrusted to the government to administer and protect. Every time you’ve driven down a public road, you’ve made use of the Commons. The Commons are there when you go to a national park. The Commons are the air we breathe and the water we drink.

So how is it that the three situations above are allowed to persist?

Well, in the third case, when DuPont poisoned most of West Virginia with the manufacture of Teflon, they got away with it via bribes and vigorously suppressing research. The rancher, Cliven Bundy, gathered a bunch of his friends who brought lots of guns and forced the government to stand down. To this day, he still owes more than a million dollars in fees for his use of the Commons. And the water-pumping company? That would be Nestle, who is currently drinking California’s milkshake right out from under them despite the fact that the state is experiencing the most severe drought in its history. This is the state, by the way, from which a lot of America’s fruits and vegetables come.

I find the concept of ownership to be philosophically problematic, particularly when it comes to land and resources. Not least because what we consider to be the Commons in this country were essentially stolen out from underneath the First Nations. Nevertheless, ownership of said land and resources is the law, and if we’re being honest, we must concede that there are enough people here that we really do need some kind of oversight and regulation. Tigantoj tend to be pretty greedy, after all. So the concept of the Commons is established fact, and conceptually necessary. But the Commons are just this — a concept. “Ownership” of any kind is a legal fiction; this must be borne in mind. What is part of the Commons, and what isn’t, is decided by the authorities — the very authorities we’ve entrusted the protection of the Commons to are effectively free to sell the Commons right out from under us.

This is a problem.

I’ve said before that the primary purpose of government is to make life better for all of its citizens, particularly the most vulnerable, and to continue improving those lives (or, at the bare minimum, to maintain the current standards). Thus, any protection and development of the Commons must be done for the good of everyone. This also allows for a rational criterion by which things can be evaluated for membership in the Commons: is it better that this thing should be protected for the common good, or should it be subject to the whims of capitalism?

Certainly, anything that is necessary for life should be protected. Clean water, pure air, and good soil are all necessarily part of the Commons, as these things are needed for people to live good, healthy lives. On the subject, health care is certainly something that should be protected as a fundamental right — the system we have right now makes a mess of things, while every other developed country in the world manages to take care of not only their own citizens but also visitors.

As for the rest? I’d personally argue that electricity, heat, and Internet access are sufficiently essential to modern life that they should be managed by the government. Education, likewise, should be part of the Commons, as should Net Neutrality — all of these things improve the lives of those who have access to them, therefore it is in society’s interest that as many people should have access to them as possible.

We can even take this further.

Let’s consider the concept of ownership in context of the concept of a nation-state. Ostensibly, the nation-state “owns” all of its territories. Accepting this legal fiction as read, this means that the people of the nation-state must own this territory — because what is a nation-state but a society, and what is a society but the gestalt of its body politic? Therefore, society “owns” all of the territories claimed by the corresponding nation-state, and gives them to the government in trust to administer for the good of all. I’m not going to say any more about this now, but it will be very important later.

I’m not arguing that the Commons should be free. Administration costs money, after all, and those who use more than their “fair share” of the commons should probably have to pay for their excess in some way — as long as everyone gets their fair share first. The point of protecting and administering the Commons is to make sure that everybody has enough, not just to be able to live, but to be able to grow and reach their potential. The purpose of the Commons cannot be the enrichment of a few — the benefit of the Commons must be shared equally amongst everyone.

In a sense, society itself is a Commons — it is made up of everyone who is a part of it, and it therefore belongs to and exists for the benefit of all of its members. If being part of society isn’t a benefit to you, personally, then you should have the ability to withdraw. A legitimate government exists to enable the people, to make sure their lives are better collectively than they would be separately. Society invests government with its authority, thus society, too, must exist to enable its citizens.

But that’s a story for another time.

In any case, the notion of the Commons is at the very core of a just, legitimate society. In fact, administration, protection, and development of the Commons is effectively the reason to have a society to begin with: so that limited resources can be equitably shared. Any path forward must therefore have at its core a commitment to the Commons, that we may all have good soil in which to thrive.

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