Daily Archives: June 10, 2022

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The Theft of the Commons

An extraordinary article, “The Theft of the Commons,” by Eula Biss, was published two days ago, on 8 June 2022. Extraordinary—not because nobody has ever discussed this topic before, but because it actually appeared in The New Yorker (H/T to my dear friend Walter Grinder for bringing this article to my attention). The article emphasizes the ‘original sin’ at the foundations of what I have called “capitalism: the known reality,” in contrast to that ahistorical “unknown ideal” that Ayn Rand and so many others in contemporary libertarian thought have projected. As Biss writes:

As a visitor from the age of private property, it seems remarkable to me that commoners held rights to land they did not own or rent, but, at the time, it was commonplace. In addition to common pasture, commoners were granted rights of pannage, of turbary, of estovers, and of piscary—rights to run their pigs in the woods, to cut peat for fuel, to gather wood from the forests, and to fish. These were rights to subsistence, rights to live on what they could glean from the land. In the course of enclosure, as written law superseded customary law, commoners lost those rights. Parliament made property rights absolute, and the traditional practice of living off the land was redefined as theft. Gleaning became trespassing, and fishing became poaching. Commoners who continued to common were now criminals. 

Biss goes on to examine the 1968 Garrett Hardin thesis of the “tragedy of the commons,” though this thesis was first developed by William Forster Lloyd way back in 1833, in an examination of the effects of unregulated grazing on common land. That thesis was rocked to its core by the Nobel prize-winning political economist, Elinor Ostrom, a writer whose work is, regrettably, not touched upon in the New Yorker article. What Ostrom showed, in books such as Governing the Commons, was not that the Lloyd-Hardin thesis was fundamentally incorrect; it was that such a thesis was applicable less to an acontextual commons and more with regard to an unmanaged, unregulated common pool. Ostrom stressed the importance of context and empirical study and documented what might be called the miracle of the commons, in a way that challenged the monistic approaches of strict propertarians and centralizing statists alike. As the Wikipedia entry notes:

Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues looked at how real-world communities manage communal resources, such as fisheries, land irrigation systems, and farmlands, and they identified a number of factors conducive to successful resource management. One factor is the resource itself; resources with definable boundaries (e.g. land) can be preserved much more easily. A second factor is resource dependence; there must be a perceptible threat of resource depletion, and it must be difficult to find substitutes. The third is the presence of a community; small and stable populations with a thick social network and social norms promoting conservation do better. A final condition is that there be appropriate community-based rules and procedures in place with built-in incentives for responsible use and punishments for overuse. When the commons is taken over by non-locals, those solutions can no longer be used.

I hope to have a lot more to say about this topic in time; but for now, check out the New Yorker article!