The judge sends to jail the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common,
But lets the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from the goose.
— Old English proverb
When Sharon Springs undertook to restore Chalybeate Park in the center of the village, the notices made a point of saying that “no tax money would be used” to restore this public space. That seemed to be both a selling point for volunteerism and the support of our citizens, and an odd point to make about an obviously well-used public area. Both points were valid, and reflected our disparate attitudes toward the concept of the commons.
If you think of the commons as those things that we all use, as inclusive, not exclusive, and open to all, not privatized, then this village park is truly a commons. The emigrants to our continent came from a society that had enclosed the commons and banned their use by the citizens. They were “owned” by the aristocracy, and the wealth of that nation, England, was based on land ownership.
As counter to this, several of our states called themselves commonwealths (Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Kentucky) and promoted the idea that these lands were to be shared by all and preserved for the future.
One definition of the commons is “a set of gifts that are shared by all.” This collective trusteeship was a familiar concept in the minds of those who came here for freedom, and recognized as part of the inalienable rights of our citizens.
A major language shift that occured after the French Revolution was in how the French people described themselves: as citizens, not subjects. We understood that as well. The commons flourished with those Enlightenment ideas about our world. The common gifts were the land, the air, the water and those other basic life-sustaining parts of our world that we share and take care of.
As our society became more complex and developed, the concept of the commons also became colored by our political thinking. We added to those natural gifts the institutions of education, law and justice, health, information, and what Thomas Jefferson called in the Declaration of Independence “the pursuit of happiness.” Not entitlements, but belonging to all as a natural right.
With the Industrial Revolution, the rise of capitalism and the monetary valuation of everything from time to the environment and even human beings, seeing our world as a thing to be used as a source of riches created a different system of economics.
Gift to be exploited
There are those who view this planet as a gift from God, to have dominion over, to exploit as a source of wealth. I don’t have to list the industries that do this. We see their presence on billboards and media advertisements every day. Turning everything into an industry is not an alien idea to us.
But what about the commons?
New York author Larry Beinhart stated in an interview shortly after the invasion of Afghanistan that he thought the areas that were publicly supported and had vast amounts of taxpayer money assigned to them (agriculture, education, Social Security, transportation, the Post Office, the military, welfare, public parks and land resources) were vulnerable to privatization by those who wanted to make more money for themselves. They saw them as big pots of money to get their hands on.
Beinhart was the author of the best-seller “American Hero,” later much-altered into the film “Wag the Dog,” and had very strong attitudes about the rampant greed he saw then. His fears have become reality.
A recent editorial in this paper proclaimed that New York could “save farming by treating it as an industry.”
This move toward privatization of agriculture (vast factory farms), education (charter schools), Social Security and pensions (investment of those funds in Wall Street), transportation (sale of thruways), the Post Office (FedEx and United Parcel), the military (firms who provide everything from troops to basic services), even prisons — all these transfers from public to private have become almost normal, almost common.
Even the Internet, basically a free service, has its gateways and machinery controlled by private companies. Is all this resulting in a positive trusteeship for American citizens? You will have to answer that for yourselves. And your children.
The basic danger in this re-defining of the commons as a resource to be exploited is that the commons will run out. Be used up. Or be polluted beyond reclamation. The chasm between the wealthy and the impoverished has never been deeper.
Our Congress argues about raising the minimum wage while hedge fund managers and CEOs are given billions in bonuses. A car costs more than many of us paid for our first homes. We tolerate pollution and injustice that would have been unthinkable a decade ago.
The world has become unlivable in more and more places. Are we being trustees? We may not have to answer that for ourselves, but our children will inherit those results, and sooner than we think. And they may not thank us.
Karen Cookson lives in Sharon Springs and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Gazette Opinion page.