Free Marketeers Want a Commons of Their Own

You know that the idea of the commons has come of age when free marketeers try to co-op it. That time has apparently arrived. Two champions of “free market environmentalism” (a beaut of an oxymoron!) host The Commons Blog, which is dedicated to “the principle of promoting environmental quality and human dignity and prosperity through markets and property rights.”

The blog, run by Iain Murphy and Jonathan H. Adler, isn’t really about the commons, of course. It’s about the tragedy of the commons, as described in Garrett Hardin’s famous 1968 essay. The Commons Blog is about the purported failures of the commons in protecting the environment, and the superiority of private property and markets in addressing that task. The site is a veritable mother lode of postings, literature and links celebrating the role of markets in protecting the environment.

One must wonder, so who exactly was the source of so many environmental perils in the first place – the government?! Environmentalists? Weirdly enough, the site actually implies the latter by giving a prominent space to novelist Michael Crichton’s latest action-thriller, State of Fear. (It’s unclear if the box on the home page is an ad or an endorsement.) The villains of Crichton’s book are radical environmentalists, who supposedly concocted the idea of global warming in order to advance their nefarious political agenda.

On an equally mythological note, The Commons Blog showcases the efficacy of “free market environmentalism” by featuring a resplendent painting of the Natural Bridge of Virginia, the natural rock formation famously celebrated by Thomas Jefferson. The Natural Bridge, we are informed, has been “protected and conserved through private ownership, not government regulation or public control” since the nation’s founding. As a big fan of land trusts, I can’t quarrel with the importance of property rights. But it’s a bit of a stretch to hoist up them up as the singular solution and blame government and environmentalists for causing all the trouble.

Oddly enough, the banner of the commons has been appropriated by another set of property-rights enthusiasts – owners of condos, coops and single-family homes. A radio show called “On the Commons” and its affiliated website rail against the surrender of rights that “mandatory homeowners associations” may require. (Only the suffix .com separates the homeowners’ site from the blog you’re reading, which has the .org suffix.) It’s not clear to me if their notion of the commons means homeowners associations or the dissident clan of property owners. In any case, belonging to a homeowners association, to them, means “giving up part of the American dream.” That’s funny – I thought homeowners associations were started precisely because they were an effective way of protecting property values (albeit through collective agreements). That’s unAmerican?

The real blind spot of property-rights champions may be their inability to admit that property rights are rooted in social community. Two wonderful books made this point very clear to me: Professor Carol Rose’s excellent Property and Persuasion: Essays on the History, Theory and Rhetoric of Ownership (Westview, 1994), and Karl Polanyi’s seminal book, The Great Transformation (Rinehart, 1944). Rose examines the narratives used to justify the idea of ownership, and Polanyi describes how “the market” became the preeminent ordering principle for society, sweeping aside community, religion, morality and other social structures.

Years ago, some friends to me worried that the commons as a term could be stretched in too many directions. I had no idea.