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Our dangerous distance between the private and the commons

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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.

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