In the beginning, the commons was everywhere. Humans roamed through it, hunting and gathering to meet their needs. Like other species, we had territories but these were communal to the tribe, not private to the person.
Agriculture arose about 10,000 years ago and along with it came permanent settlements and private property. Rulers granted ownership of land to loyal families. Often, military leaders distributed conquered land to their soldiers.
Despite the growth of private property, much land remained part of the commons. In Roman times, bodies of water, shorelines, wildlife and air were explicitly classified as res communes, resources available to all. During the Middle Ages, kings and feudal lords frequently claimed title to rivers, forests and wild animals, often to have such claims periodically rebuked. The Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest, which King John of England was forced to sign in 1215 and 1217, established forests and fisheries as res communes.
In the 17th century, English philosopher John Locke sought to find a balance between the commons and private property. He believed that God gave the earth to “mankind in common”, but that some private property is justified because it spurs humans to work. The trick is to get the right balance. People should be able to acquire private property, Locke concluded, but only up to a limit. That limit is set by two considerations: first, it should be no more than they can make productive through their labour, and second, it has to leave “enough and as good in common” for others. This was consistent with English common law at the time, which held, for example, that landowners could draw water from an adjacent stream only for their own use, and couldn’t diminish the supply available to others.
Despite Locke’s quest for balance, the great majority of the English commons was enclosed, which is to say, privatised. Local gentry, backed by Parliament, fenced off village lands and converted them to private holdings. Impoverished peasants then drifted to cities and became industrial workers.
One observer of this transformation was Thomas Paine, the English-born writer who inspired the American Revolution. Seeing how enclosure of the commons benefited a few and disinherited many others, Paine proposed a remedy — not a reversal of enclosure, which he considered necessary for economic progress, but economy-wide compensation for commoners’ losses.
Like Locke, Paine believed nature was a gift from God to all. “There are two kinds of property,” he wrote. “Firstly, natural property, or that which comes to us from the Creator of the universe — such as the earth, air, water. Secondly, artificial or acquired property — the invention of men.” In the latter, he reasoned, equality is impossible, but in the former, “all individuals have legitimate birthrights”. Since these birthrights were being diminished by enclosure, compensation ought to be paid.
To Paine, this was more than a philosophical notion; it was something that could easily be done. To that end, he proposed a “national fund” to pay every man and woman about $18,000 in today’s dollars at age 21, and $12,000 a year after age 55. Revenue would come from “ground rent” paid by private landowners upon their deaths. He even showed mathematically how this could work.
The Commons in America
In the years following European settlement, America developed its own relationship with the commons, which included the vast lands that were taken from native people and Mexico. Some Americans, exemplified by Thomas Jefferson, saw the American commons as the soil from which
a nation of small farmers could be built. This philosophy led to passage of the Land Ordinance of 1785, the Homestead Act of 1862 and similar laws, which allocated family-size plots to settlers and financed schools to educate them. Many Americans, exemplified by Teddy Roosevelt, also cherished these lands for their wildness and beauty, which led to the establishment of national parks and wilderness areas.
At the same time, others in America viewed its common wealth as the means to their personal fortune, and lobbied or bribed government officials to give away lands to railroads, mining and timber companies and speculators. If an accounting could be made of all the private appropriations of commons through the years, it would total trillions of dollars. The plot is almost always the same: when a commons acquires commercial value, someone tries to grab it.
What’s astonishing about these takings isn’t that they occur, but how unaware of them the average citizen is. As former secretary of the interior Walter Hickel said,
“If you steal $10 from a man’s wallet, you’re likely to get into a fight, but if you steal billions from the commons, co-owned by him and his descendants, he may not even notice.”
Enclosure is half the reason our commons is in decline today. The other half is a form of trespass called externalising, in which private corporations shift costs to the commons. The one-two punch of enclosure and externalising is especially destructive. With one hand, corporations take valuable stuff from the commons and privatise it. With the other, they dump harmful stuff into the commons and pay nothing. The result is profits for corporations but a steady loss for everyone else.
Capitalism Enters the Fray
Humans began ravaging nature long before capitalism was a gleam in Adam Smith’s eye. Modern capitalism, however, has exponentially enlarged the scale of the destruction. A century ago, land, resources and places to dump wastes were abundant; capital itself was the limiting factor. That’s why rules and practices were developed that prioritised capital above all else.
In the 21st century, however, this is no longer the case. As economist Joshua Farley has noted, “If we want more fish on our dinner plates, the scarce factor isn’t fishing boats, it’s fish. If we want more timber, the scarce factor isn’t sawmills, it’s trees.”
The world today is awash with capital, most of it devoted to speculation. By contrast, healthy ecosystems are increasingly scarce. If anything deserves priority today, it’s nature’s capital, yet capitalism ignores that completely, while always seeking the maximum return to financial capital.
What is to be Done?
Capitalism has two tragic flaws: it relentlessly destroys nature and widens inequality among humans. For millions of people around the world, the challenge of our century is to fix or replace capitalism before its cumulative harms become irreparable.
But how? Policy proposals abound, but few would alter the seemingly inexorable dynamic of markets. Fortunately, there’s an untapped source of wealth that could set markets right. Modern humans are heirs to a vast trove of wealth we inherit together. This co-inheritance comes with potential benefits and a responsibility. Our responsibility is to pass on the inheritance to succeeding generations, undiminished if not enhanced. Our potential benefits include enough income to assure lifetime economic security for everyone.
What’s in our co-inheritance? It starts, as in Locke’s day, with gifts of nature, now described more cynically by the term “ecosystems services”. Of these, our atmosphere is the most important. On top of that, it includes such human-built assets as our monetary and legal systems, our social cohesion (our ability to collaborate as a society for mutual gain) and the existence of markets themselves — assets economists often refer to as “social capital”.
How much is our co-inherited wealth worth? The late Nobel economist Herbert Simon calculated that roughly 90% of the wealth Americans live off today is social capital built by previous generations. Robert Costanza, another economist, found that ecosystem services contribute about 10% of global GDP. These estimates suggest we are greatly confused about where our standard of living comes from. We think it comes from the fevered efforts of today’s businesses and workers, but in fact these merely add icing to a cake that was baked long ago.
Reclaiming our Common Wealth
It’s time to reclaim our shared inheritance. In his latest book, Plunder of the Commons: A Manifesto for Sharing Public Wealth, British sociologist Guy Standing lays out a plan he calls a new Charter
of the Commons. Among many things, it calls for a national Commons Fund, similar to that proposed by Paine, which would invest in projects that enhance the commons and pay equal dividends to all. The Fund’s revenue would come from charges for commercial uses of the commons, such as pollution, congestion and transaction fees. And it could be supplemented by similar state and regional funds.
An example is the Shetland Charitable Trust, set up in the 1970s to collect “disturbance payments” from companies exploiting North Sea oil. By 2018, the trust had assets of £232m. Similarly, Norway’s Oil Fund now has assets of more than $1tn.
Reclaiming our commons isn’t simply about recovering money. Primarily it is about fulfilling the social contracts we have with each other, future generations and nature.
Those contracts would be embedded in common property rights vested in fiduciary trusts whose beneficiaries are all living persons and those yet to be born. Every baby would be a trust fund baby and a co-trustee for future babies. Government policies would come and go, but shared ownership of common wealth would be locked in.
Let’s be clear. For the commons to make a comeback, we, the people, must claim it. We must demand, through movements, that our wealth not be taken or despoiled. We must demand that it be preserved for future generations. And we must demand our equal shares of it now.