On Political Books

July/ August 2013 The Glory of the Commons

Jonathan Rowe’s brilliant posthumous meditation on the shared, non-commercialized realms of life that sustain us.

By Timothy Noah

Our Common Wealth: The Hidden Economy That Makes Everything Else Work
by Jonathan Rowe
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 123 pp.


One of the sharper satirical jabs in People, a recent play by the English writer Alan Bennett, occurs when a consortium of wealthy investors decides to purchase Winchester Cathedral. “I know it’s pricey,” says an absurdly practical-minded archdeacon, “but Winchester is such a good idea.” “Isn’t it?” replies the consortium’s smooth-as-silk agent. “And after all, the school is private, so why shouldn’t the cathedral be private too?” Warming to the topic, the archdeacon proposes “a series of exclusive celebrity Eucharists [for] leading figures in business, sport, and the world of entertainment.”

What makes the joke funny is our understanding that a hallowed monument like Winchester Cathedral could never belong to anyone but the public. Technically it was once the property of the Catholic Church and later became the property of the Church of England (after Henry VIII seized it). But throughout history it really belonged to the townspeople and more distant visitors who came there to worship, to witness weddings or funerals, to admire its famous chantry chapels and great stone screen, to pay respects to Jane Austen (who’s buried there), or maybe just to hum a few bars from the 1966 novelty hit song (“Winchester Cathedral / You’re bringin’ me down / You stood and you watched as / My baby left town”). Winchester Cathedral is what architects call a “public space,” which is to say it would have no function were not large numbers of ordinary people—most of them Anglican, many non-Christian, some agnostics or atheists—impelled to assemble there on equal terms, as they’ve been doing for more than a thousand years.

Jonathan Rowe, alongside whom I worked at the Washington Monthly in the early 1980s, and who died two years ago at the distressingly young age of sixty-five, would describe Winchester Cathedral as part of “the commons.” By “commons” he meant things that are widely shared as a matter of law or sometimes mere convention. In the most literal sense, a common is a public park, like Boston Common. But in the broader sense commons can mean anything that’s available to all takers for at most a nominal fee. It can be a work of timeless literature no longer under copyright. It can be an invention of enormous societal value on which a patent either expired or (as in the heroically selfless cases of Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine and Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web) was never claimed. It can be the air we breathe, or the water we drink. It can be an experience we all go through, such as childhood or old age. It can be the absence of something we hate, like noise. It can be Wikipedia. It can be an ocean beach. It can be free Wi-Fi. The commons is a realm that lies outside conventional market economics, but that nonetheless creates wealth—sometimes monetary, sometimes spiritual or psychic—for us all.

That’s the basic message of Our Common Wealth: The Hidden Economy That Makes Everything Else Work, a posthumous volume that Rowe’s friend Peter Barnes—policy entrepreneur, lefty capitalist, and onetime West Coast correspondent for the New Republic—edited from Rowe’s published writings and from unpublished fragments of a book that Rowe left unfinished at his death. Rowe’s efforts to deliver a completed manuscript were, it seems, a bit unfocused (meeting deadlines was never Jon’s forte), but his thinking on various aspects of this topic was characteristically elegant, thorough, and organic. Barnes has deftly arranged the pieces into a compelling manifesto. Indeed, my only complaint is that there’s an oversupply here of explanatory material (written by Barnes and author-activists Bill McKibben and David Bollier) where a single foreword would have sufficed. This is testament more I think to the admiration so many of us felt for Jon than to any real need to provide context. The bricks of Rowe’s argument, as arranged by Barnes, fit snugly and sturdily without mortar.

Our Common Wealth makes the case for the sort of social arrangements that are seldom acknowledged except to be attacked or dismantled. The jumble of shared institutions, places, resources, and human experience that constitute the commons have taken a beating during the past four decades as the conservative ascendency has expanded market theory into various areas where it didn’t belong. Before 1987, for example, broadcasters were required by government to present both sides of all public issues on what were, after all, public airwaves. That ended, and the era of shrill talk radio began, with the Federal Communications Commission’s abolition of the Fairness Doctrine. Another example of the commons’ embattled state is the deliberate shrinkage of the public domain for literature and other creative works. Originally, copyright protection lasted only fourteen years. As recently as 1976, it lasted the author’s lifetime plus twenty-eight years (with an option for heirs to renew for another twenty-eight). Two subsequent laws eliminated the renewal requirement and expanded posthumous copyright protection to seventy years, in effect burdening the national conversation with one or two additional generations of rentiers. “If this expansion has brought a corresponding improvement in literary quality,” Rowe observes drily, “it is not apparent from the bestseller lists.”

old timers
Salad days: A youthful Jonathan Rowe (in the beard) with fellow Washington Monthly editors Phil Keisling, Charles Peters, and Timothy Noah.

During the past forty-odd years the idea of the commons has taken a beating as well, thanks to a widely read essay (first published in Science in 1968) called “The Tragedy of the Commons.” The author, a professor of biology at the University of California Santa Barbara named Garrett Hardin, posited a “pasture open to all” on which herdsmen’s cattle grazed. For each herdsman, Hardin calculated, the (individual) benefit of adding one additional animal to the pasture far exceeded the (shared) cost of overgrazing. As each herdsman pursued his rational self-interest the pasture would gradually be destroyed. Hardin intended his essay to be a warning about overpopulation, but privatization advocates seized on “The Tragedy of the Commons” as a parable demonstrating the utter futility of public or any other type of shared ownership. When everybody is responsible, no one is.

Hardin’s theory was not without value. It’s a useful template, for instance, for appreciating why it’s maddeningly difficult to organize the world’s nations to address the growing dangers of climate change. On a more humble plane, it explains why office refrigerators, coffee makers, and sinks are always an ungodly mess. Indeed, I remember Jon himself long ago posting an exasperated written plea to our Monthly office mates (“Be reality-based!”) to better maintain a shared office hot pot in which he frequently brewed soups and teas.

Timothy Noah is an MSNBC contributor, contributing editor for the Washington Monthly, and author of The Great Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It.

Comments

  • Wonderland on July 08, 2013 5:32 PM:

    How lovely. One copy, sold

  • Zak44 on July 13, 2013 9:12 AM:

    One of the most evocative expressions of this idea I've ever read: http://www.esquire.com/blogs/politics/believe-in-america-7685927affect ypatri

  • Mark Breza on July 13, 2013 2:21 PM:

    This is a point that Henry George in Progrees & Poverty makes about
    unearned income not being taxed.
    If a public park is built next to your property,
    you have gains that were not caused by your own labor,
    therefore these should be taxed for the public cost.

  • Anonymous on July 13, 2013 6:35 PM:

    It is easy to make arguments about the glory of the commons by inflating the meaning of the term "commons" to virtual meaningless. Winchester Cathedral neither is nor ever has been a commons. It is an owned entity. That the public frequents it does not make it a commons any more than the fact that a privately owned restaurant frequented by the public makes that establishment a commons. The church owners of Winchester cathedral are engaged in ministering to and capturing souls, and find it in their interest to admit the public free of charge to the arena in which they pursue that goal. There are plenty of examples of Harding-type tragedies of the commons (one might in fact construe the demise and collapse of the Soviet Union as a monumental case in point). One of the lessons of Ostrom's work is the various sanctions and incentives that need to be in place to counter the forces Hardin pointed to in his essay, and thereby to get various cooperative arrangements to work. Without them, Hardin's dynamics tend to prevail in the long run, as Rowe could observe in his office kitchen commons.