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

But as Rowe points out in Our Common Wealth, the construct put forth in “The Tragedy of the Commons” is “an extrapolation from assumptions rather than an investigation of reality.” Had Hardin bothered to consult empirical evidence, he would have learned that back in the days when actual farmers really did share land for hunting, foraging, and grazing, they did not behave like the utility-maximizing clods in his theoretical model. They worked together, sharing tools and labor to maintain these precious plots of land so that successive generations could prosper in the same place. This “worked well for hundreds of years,” Rowe writes.

Similar examples abound. Spain has maintained shared irrigation systems for 600 years, with farmers receiving water on a rotating basis and, during droughts, giving the most vulnerable crops the highest priority, regardless of who happens to own them. In the Swiss Alps, grazing pastures and forests continue to operate on the commons principle. And so on. Elinor Ostrom won a Nobel Prize in economics in 2009 for laying out such examples by way of refuting Hardin’s theory. Reviewing all available evidence, Ostrom was able to demonstrate that people and societies were much more willing than previously supposed—and much more competent—to work together to solve common problems. So maybe we can lick that global-warming problem after all.

The office kitchen, alas, remains a hopeless case, probably because too few employees make use of it for the office as a whole to care whether it becomes a pigsty or not. Rowe doesn’t revisit the tragedy of the Monthly’s hot pot (whose resolution I no longer recall). But he does make the related point that a commons depends for its success on the willingness of its target community to use it. Large and beautiful public spaces often fail, Rowe notes, because the architect didn’t heed the journalist William H. Whyte’s homely observation that the public won’t usually gather anyplace it can’t sit down. Stairs will do at least as well as chairs, and many may not sit down at all, but people like to know they can. Acting on this principle, Rowe and a friend fixed up a couple of old garden benches they had lying around and put them in a vacant lot next to a popular bakery in Point Reyes Station, California, where they lived. The lot instantly became a de facto public park, and eventually a local nonprofit that Rowe helped to found formally leased the land for public use. Today, Barnes informs readers, locals call the place “Jon Rowe Park.”

Rowe’s celebration of ancient-but-durable communal resources like the town square raises the question of whether his ultimate quarrel was with modernity. Rowe was reared in a conservative household, and though his politics subsequently turned leftward he never entirely lost his distaste for big government. (We sometimes argued about that; I feel more comfortable with bigness.) The commons worked best, Rowe felt, when it stood apart from both government and commerce, which is why Rowe would have howled with laughter at Alan Bennett’s use of Winchester Cathedral to lampoon market worship. (Though a state-established religion, the Church of England isn’t really part of the British government.) Rowe remained enough of a conservative to experience sincere irritation that Reagan Republicans ignored the critique of commercial culture set forth in one of their movement’s founding documents, Russell Kirk’s 1953 book, The Conservative Mind. “Kirk was in some ways a fusty aristocrat,” Rowe writes, “but he was honest enough to acknowledge as a conservative that markets need boundaries, just as the state does.” Kirk’s Burkean-style conservatism, which emphasized “community, locality, tradition, and virtue,” has been displaced, Rowe complains, by a “politically expedient and cynical” conservatism that boils down to “a belief that it is okay to waste the patrimony so long as somebody makes money doing it.”

But if Rowe remained in some respects a conservative, he was anything but anti-modern in celebrating the commons’ single biggest contemporary success story. That is, of course, the World Wide Web. Rowe likens local efforts to expand broadband access to the New Deal’s expansion of rural electrification. Just as Rowe’s conservative stepfather, reared in rural Texas, savored the childhood memory of first tasting refrigerated milk on a brutally hot summer day courtesy of Franklin Roosevelt’s Rural Electrification Act, so some self-made conservative economist may one day reminisce to his children about the first time free municipal Wi-Fi enabled him to watch Milton Friedman absolve private business of any responsibility for the Great Depression. Al Gore famously referred to the Web, during its infancy, as an “information superhighway,” but Rowe likens it, more modestly, to a sidewalk. Like a sidewalk, the Web is at least as much a gathering spot as it is a route to any particular destination. More than its high-speed efficiency, Rowe admires the Web’s ability to create serendipitous connections. Wikipedia, Rowe writes, is a similarly social phenomenon, enabling people to share expertise free of charge “not because they are saints” but because “something in our nature wants to be engaged with other people.”

A glory of the Web and Wikipedia, like the glory of the commons in its older forms, is that it’s something we all possess that we don’t have to think about. One message of market fundamentalism is that we must never, ever take anything in life for granted. “When did that stop?” asks a sympathetic character in Bennett’s People. “Taking things for granted.” The 1980s, the archdeacon answers matter-of-factly. “Everything had a price. If it didn’t have a price it didn’t have a value.” Bennett has written that he, too, misses the pre-Thatcher feeling of taking good things for granted: “The state has never frightened me. Why should it? It gave me my education (and in those days it was a gift); it saved my father’s life as on occasion it has saved mine.” Replace the word “state” with “commons” and Rowe would nod in vigorous agreement. When we take too few of life’s riches for granted, we are all of us poorer, no matter how much cash we have in the bank. Jon understood that in his bones.

Buy this book from Amazon and support Washington Monthly: Our Common Wealth: The Hidden Economy That Makes Everything Else Work (BK Currents)

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.


  • 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.