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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.

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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.

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.


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