The Pathos of Politics – The Commons

The Commons

Traditionally, grazing fields in English villages were collectively owned by its inhabitants. So too with fields and woodlands in much of Europe in the Middle Ages.

Since no one could be excluded for access, natural resources were subject to overexploitation and depletion; a dispiriting dynamic commonly called the tragedy of the commons.

That no one was directly responsible for shared lands was the common diagnosis to the tragedy. The ostensible solution was a private property regime.

Property rights do not solve the tragedy of resource depletion or spoliation. Private property may instead accelerate environmental degradation, with spillover consequences, as history amply illustrates.

Further, the history of public lands, managed by government – any government, from tribal leaders on out – has a decidedly mixed history of mismanagement.

Stepping back for a closer look at history, the open-field system through much of Europe worked well for centuries, beginning in late medieval times. The system became dysfunctional in England, not because of overexploitation per se, but owing to a decline in social solidarity within rural English villages. That decline can be traced to privatization of neighboring lands. Wealthy private landowners drove peasants off communal property to better exploit it for themselves.

This recurred numerous times from the 14th to the 19th century. Wealthy landowners were abetted by legal sanctions – rather easily got in a country that curried to landed gentry. The repeated reaction was revolts by persecuted and ejected peasants: whence the breakdown in social solidarity.

There aren’t very many examples of modern property rights emerging spontaneously and peacefully out of a bargaining process. The way customary property rights yielded to modern ones was much more violent. Power and deceit played a large role. ~ Francis Fukuyama

The tragedy of the commons does not unfold in well-functioning kin-based tribal societies with communal property. Many historical examples have been found in the south Pacific islands of Melanesia, extending to current times.

The lands in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands tied up in customary property rights were managed well. Environmental destruction on a significant scale only occurred after a mining or palm oil company acquired real estate.

A similar story unfolded in Africa. Pastoral tribal societies with communal properties were forcibly outmaneuvered by European colonialists, who rode roughshod over traditions to install their own political and property regimes, which favored overexploitation and economic development that decimated wildlife populations and delivered relative poverty to the natives.