Our dangerous distance between the private and the commons
Americans have retreated into cocoons of the like-minded where all they hear is echoes of themselves.
POINT REYES, CALIF.
My wife's village in the Philippines consists mostly of bamboo houses perched on hills that rise gently from the rice fields. The hills are lush, the fields neat and well-tended; one almost forgets how poor these people are, in Western terms at least. My wife's father gets about $750 a year for his crop - a lot compared with sharecroppers who have little besides the rice they eat and clothes they wear.Skip to next paragraph
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Life is not easy. Yet there is a sense of sufficiency and contentment that is not much found in the US. There is time; daily life is not a grim march to the metronome of clocks. There is also the abundance of nature - coconut, banana, and mango trees, sweet potatoes and swamp cabbage, the chickens and goats that fill the yards. None of these appear in the stern accountings of Western economists who pronounce upon the poverty of such people.
Most of all, there is the rice, which is both livelihood and sustenance, the center of everything.
"If you have rice under the house," my father-in-law says, "you do not have worries."
The rice fields are productive in another way, too. By unspoken agreement, villagers can walk across the narrow dikes that define each farmer's land, to get where they need to go. Private property becomes to this extent a commons; boundaries that divide tend also to tie people together. The fields help produce community as well as rice, and this is both a reflection and reinforcement of a social cohesion that pervades daily life there.
No, it's not idyllic. People being people, feuds and animosities are not unknown. But bonds of mutual supportare strong. Studies have shown that Filipinos consider themselves happy to a greater degree than their statistical poverty might suggest. I could not help thinking that those paths through the rice fields point to one reason why.
America was once a lot like this. The concept of property early settlers had wasn't a walled fortress; it was a permeable membrane that sought to reconcile the parts and the whole. Early New Englanders built their towns around a commons, a shared pasture for livestock. Private woodlands were open to others for hunting or cutting wood, unless owners fenced them.
Water law, so important in the new land, reflected this desire for balance. You could use the water that ran through your land, but not in a way that diminished your neighbor's use. The water belongs to all of us, the law said, and ownership has responsibilities as well as rights.
The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which laid out a plan of government for what is now much of the upper Midwest, declared that the main waterways there "shall be common highways and forever free."
Such thinking isn't a quaint relic of a simpler time. It's rooted in a fundamental economic truth - namely, the symbiosis between the private and the common.
Private property couldn't exist without a society that honors and protects it. The value of property derives largely from the efforts of others, or gifts of nature. Take a Park Avenue apartment, or a Cape Cod cottage, put it in a cornfield or urban slum, and you'd better reduce the asking price. The structure is the same; the difference is what's around it. The real estate mantra "location, location, location" really means "gifts, gifts, gifts" - of society and nature. This is true of financial assets as well as real estate. In fact, it's true to a degree of all human production and creation. Every invention, business technique, story, and song draws on what has come before. I couldn't write this, nor you read it, without the English language - a gift to both of us. We all stand on many shoulders; and earlier concepts of property acknowledged this.
Nowhere was this thinking more evident than in the realm of invention and ideas. America itself is an idea, the first nation so conceived; so the views of the Founders on this point are especially telling. Jefferson and Madison considered the mind to be the mother lode of freedom, and they wanted no restrictions - private or public - on its fruits. The copyright and patent clause of the Constitution generally restricts these private monopolies to limited times; and this provision is of a piece with the First Amendment protections of freedom of speech.
Benjamin Franklin was no slouch when it came to a dollar - yet he didn't seek patents for his numerous inventions. "As we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad to serve others by any invention of ours," he said.