Box Property A Social Construct

Property is not a metaphysical absolute. It is an instrument that societies design to advance particular ends. There are many different kinds— corporate, marital, municipal, partnership, cooperative, and so forth—all of which are defined socially for different purposes. Today, two categories of property dominate the public debate: public and private. This follows from an ideological spectrum that offers the public and private "sectors" as the only options from which to choose.

Yet a third kind of property—common property—is neither public nor private in the usual sense. Historically it has served well for organizing the use of natural resources of many kinds and for defining the rights and responsibilities of people regarding these. In England, much agricultural land was held in common until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In practice this was similar to community gardens today. Individuals had their own plots, but the underlying ownership was in common.

The concept permeated the early thinking about property generally, including what today are called the public and private realms. In the early U.S. colonies, private woodlands typically were regarded as commons for purposes of subsistence, such as hunting, fishing, and even cutting wood. The woodland commons sustained slaves during their bondage. To resubordinate them after emancipation, the southern planters closed the commons and thereby shut off a key part of their livelihoods.

Residues of the earlier thinking exist today in regards to wildlife and more broadly in the legal doctrine of the public trust. Ancient Roman law declared that some things are common by their very nature—primarily air, sky, wildlife, and navigable waters. Government did not own these and therefore could not privatize them, even if legislators wanted to. Much like trustees of an estate, governments have a legal obligation to maintain the asset for the benefit of the public at large.

Today the public trust prohibits governments from turning over to private parties the coastlines and navigable waters (and perhaps other things as well) that they have a responsibility to protect for future generations. Common property is encoded for the long haul.

Source: See endnote II.

The Parallel Economy of the Commons extrapolation from assumptions about reality rather than an actual investigation of it.12

Hardin simply assumed that all commons are free-for-alls, and he took no account of the human capacity to create rules to govern access and use. He bid his readers to "picture" a hypothetical pasture, which he peopled with hypothetical herders enlisted from the economics texts. These individuals existed outside of any social structure and tradition and lacked a capacity even to talk to one another. They all behaved as the texts said they would and according to what they call "rationality." They let their herds loose in the pasture in a single-minded effort to maximize their own gain, with no thought for the future or for anybody else. The pasture was depleted, and the tragedy was born.

There is a large irony here. Hardin was assuming the psychology of the large corporation and projecting it onto the pasture. This is the very institution that free market advocates, who cite Hardin as gospel, want to entrust the pasture to through privatization. They are purporting to solve the problem by embracing a purer version of it.

What Hardin overlooked is that people do not necessarily behave as economists assume they do. As historian E. P. Thompson observed, Hardin failed to grasp "that commoners themselves were not without common sense." Thompson was referring specifically to the common-field agriculture of his own England. Households had their own plots, but the rights to these were a matter of custom rather than of legal title, and the same was true of access to other lands for hunting, foraging, and grazing.13

Commoners pooled their implements and labor for joint maintenance and the like. They combined their herds to fertilize their respective plots. The destruction that Hardin declared to be an axiom simply did not happen. To the contrary, the system worked well for those who constituted it.

The historical and anthropological literature is full of examples of commons-based management of limited resources. Regarding water, the irrigation systems in Bali are not exceptional. Spain has had similar systems, called huerta,, for almost 600 years. The farmers whose land adjoins each canal elect their own chief executive, called a syndic, who resolves disputes between them in a tribunal held twice a week. They get water from the canal on a rotating basis. During droughts, the crops with the greatest need get first priority.14 Especially suggestive are the zanjera of the northern Philippines. Tenant farmers there join together and build irrigation systems on dry private land in exchange for use rights to that land. In effect they become joint semi-owners through sweat equity. It is grueling work. The dams break routinely during the monsoon season and must be rebuilt sometimes three or four times in a single year. Members typically work something like 40 days a year on the zanjera and in some cases close to double that.15

There are more than a thousand of these in the province of Illocos Norte, according to one estimate. They have an ingenious system for allocating water to make sure everyone gets a share. They divide the land into three or more sections and members get a plot in each section, in differing sequences along the canals. This way each member can have a plot that is close to the front of an irrigation line. Even in times of drought, everybody gets something. In addition, officials of the zanjera get extra land at the tail end of the line. This gives them extra motivation to ensure prudent use so that at least some water makes it that far.16

There are many examples of common pastures working effectively as well. In the alpine region of Switzerland, for example, the grazing pastures typically are commons, as are

The Parallel Economy of the Commons forests, irrigation systems, and paths and roadways connecting private and common property. Farmers generally have private land for their own crops. The commons and the private exist in symbiosis, a little like the common areas of a co-op or condominium apartment building. Each form of property serves the purpose for which it is suited best.17

In the Swiss village of Torbel, residents formed a commons association over 500 years ago. They established a rule that members could graze no more cattle on the common pasture than they could feed during the winter. As of a decade or so ago the rule still was in effect. It is general practice throughout the Alps—another example of the common sense that Hardin and others assumed that commoners lack.18

Hardin practically could have looked outside his California window, at the western plains, to test his hypothesis against reality. The early cattle ranchers there were not saintly people. But they also were not stupid. They found ways to cooperate rather than destroying the habitat that sustained their herds and themselves. They adopted the practice of branding from Mexicans, to distinguish different herds. They cooperated on roundups and cattle drives. Most important in the present context, these ranchers limited their cattle herds and worked to keep out newcomers. It was not always pretty. But it also was not the tragedy that the "tragedy thesis" assumes is inevitable in a pasture not enclosed by a property regime.19

Hardin's essay won applause in environmental quarters, mainly because it was not really about the commons. It was a case for population control, and the tragedy thesis served merely as a grim parable to that end. From the start, however, anthropologists and others who actually studied commons-based social arrangements objected to Hardin's broad-brush dismissal of the commons. Even tually, Hardin himself had to modify his stance. He acknowledged that the problem is not common ownership per se but rather open access—that is, commons in which there are no social structures or formal rules to govern access and use.20

Such cases do exist, of course. The fisheries on the East Coast of the United States are an obvious example of an open access regime; Earth's atmosphere is another. When tragedies occur, there generally has been a breakdown in the social structure that once governed use, or else a scale at which such structures are not possible, or new technologies of exploitation for which the existing rules are not sufficient. Population pressures have played a role as well, as in the mountain forests of the Philippines.21

But population generally has not worked alone. There also has been the invasion of a corporate, governmental, or other external and exploitive force. Native Americans did not eradicate the buffalo on the western plains; fur hunters from outside did. Local residents have not sliced the tops off mountains in Appalachia or befouled the land and water in quest of coal bed methane gas in the Rocky Mountains. Outside corporations have. When the fishery off of Brooklyn and Queens in New York City began to collapse in the 1960s, it was not because of local fishers alone. Rather it was a combination of garbage barges and factory trawlers that brought this fishery to the brink.22

It is strange that the reigning policy focus is on the tragedy of the commons when actually the tragedy of the corporate is probably a greater threat.

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