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Choice and The Commons


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Sharing in the Fruits of the Earth

We live in a very polarized time. The extremes take the form of Conservative and Liberal, Right and Left. And neither side seems to be able to convince the other of its superior point of view.

But in many ways, it is a false divide. Good people exist on both sides who are trying to do what they think is best for society. But many get so focused on their final objective, they sometimes forget to honor certain critical principles along the way.

One of the most important of those principles is authentic choice. Everyone wants the opportunity to do things their own way. And with a proper understanding of choice, Right and Left can find common understanding, if they are willing to try.

John Locke, one of the heroes of Conservatism, once said:

Government has no other end, but the preservation of property.

This underscores one important way conservatives try to protect individual choice. They recognize that people should have the right to determine their own future, and control their own lives.

One of conservatives’ most cherished rights to the ability to own and control property. The Declaration of Independence tells us all people should be free to live, to be free from bondage, and to be able to pursue their own lives according to their own desires and beliefs.

Pursuing happiness means owning and controlling your own body, choosing what you will do, and how you will do it. By extension, that means if we work to improve our conditions, we should be able to enjoy the results of that work too. It might be something we produced directly, or something we bought or traded for. Regardless, this is what is meant by property: the fruits of our labors.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a hero of Liberalism, once said:

The first person who, having enclosed a plot of land, took it into his head to say this is mine and found people simple enough to believe him was the true founder of civil society. What crimes, wars, murders, what miseries and horrors would the human race have been spared, had some one pulled up the stakes or filled in the ditch and cried out to his fellow men: “Do not listen to this imposter. You are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to all and the earth to no one!”

These two quotes help illustrate a source of the divide between Right and Left. Liberals rightly point out the potential arrogance of arbitrarily declaring one’s self as owner of something. To enjoy our rights, we also have to be sensitive to the rights of others. One person, enjoying his rights, should not unduly infringe upon another person’s ability to also enjoy his. So in this way, Liberals are also trying to protect individual rights.

The Rousseau quote reminds us of a concept sometimes called the commons. The idea is: the earth contains certain resources that really should be available to all of us. We should be wary of those who may claim a monopoly over such things.

At first glance, this seems to be in potential conflict with the notion of private property. If everything the earth produces is really owned in common, maybe I can never really own any of it. If so, how can I ever have a private residence, a yard where others are not allowed to trespass, a car others are not allowed to drive? Is it really possible to pursue my own happiness, if nothing can be privately owned?

This is where a proper understanding of authentic choice helps us resolve the apparent conflicts. To understand better, let’s consider some examples.

First, let us examine one of the most critical fruits of the earth: air. All living things use the earth’s atmosphere in a complementary arrangement where plants use the CO2 given off by animals and create oxygen as a by-product. In turn, animals consume oxygen and produce the CO2 needed to repeat the cycle.

Air is all around us so all we have to do is breathe in to appropriate what we need. Since there is plenty for everyone, we shouldn’t have to fight over it. It seems obvious, no one owns it and it is available for all of us. As long as we are all responsible with it, everyone can just take what they need.

This is clearly what is meant by the commons—something we all have a right to and can share in equally.

But what happens when a resource is not as plentiful or available as air? Next, let us consider land, as Rousseau used in his example. There is enough land on the earth for everyone to own some. But there probably isn’t enough for everyone to have all they may want.

More importantly, not all land is the same. Certain places are much more desirable than others. Some land may contain valuable minerals, or it might be more fertile for cultivation of food. If all land belongs to everyone, how can we then exercise our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

Most of us want the ability to live with some privacy. We might like to have a home and perhaps a yard where others can not enter without our permission. If all areas of the earth are open and available to everyone, how can we have a private place where we exercise our own control and choice?

This is where civil society comes in. And it can be implemented in a variety of different ways, depending on how you believe things should be done. But the goal is to come up with a set of rules for how we allocate scarce resources among the people who want and need them.

Some people might think a more socialized approach is better. Others may prefer a system that more strongly emphasizes individual rights to private property. Using the principles of authentic choice, we can craft a framework that allows for multiple approaches.

The American founding fathers attempted to accomplish this by establishing a republic, rather than a democracy. The idea is to have multiple, different states, all operating their own forms of representative democracy to implement civil society according to prevailing local values and standards. Then, the federal government has a few, well defined powers—primarily intended to protect life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence.

This system maximizes diversity and allows people to gravitate to a place where civil society is implemented in a way most compatible with their individual desires and beliefs. If states follow the model, they might also have counties and cities with a wide range of diversity, offering even more choices.

So if we are all to live together in a single country, but with a wide range of differing opinions, how then do we deal with a critical issue like the commons? Do we just let people appropriate the natural resources they want? Or do we need a federal government to enforce the notion of common access to the fruits of the earth?

To answer, we need to first address the critical question: Where does mankind fit into this equation? Are people just another resource—a fruit of the earth, also to be owned by all? Or are we something different? Aren’t we the ones to which the fruits of the earth belong—the owners themselves?

We can find unity in the answer. Both Locke and Rousseau make it clear, mankind is something different. Locke tells us government should protect our right to own property. But virtually no one today believes one person should ever become the property of someone else.

And in Rousseau’s quote it is clear, all mankind is the owner of the fruits of the earth. One man is no greater, or less than another.

So civil society may implement rules to facilitate the orderly use of the common resources of the earth, by mankind. But it is at some deeper level—an inalienable level, that we know one person should not own another.

Each person must be the owner of himself. This includes our body, our mind, our life, our time, and our work. We should be free to exercise the powers of that sovereignty, as long as we are willing to do so without infringing on the same rights of others.

Any other approach eventually leads down the slippery slope of involuntary servitude, or slavery by degrees.

Once we can find common ground on this critical principle, it becomes easier to find ways to get along on policy decisions. We can see more clearly how some enthusiastic Rousseau fans may sometimes go too far in defining the commons, and other enthusiastic Locke fans may not go far enough.

No longer does it have to be a battle between Right and Left. It can instead become a question of right versus wrong. It is wrong for one person to own or control another, against his will, no matter how much we may dress it up in the political ideology of either the Right or the Left.

The earth is filled with all kinds of natural resources we want and need to support our lives and make us more comfortable. Mankind can invent any number of systems of civil society to facilitate the allocation of those resources. But people must be kept out of the mix. We must never start laying claims of entitlement to each other, nor the fruits of our labors. This is crossing a line.

To illustrate, now let us consider some resources even more scarce than land. Iron ore is clearly one of the many fruits of the earth. And in its raw form, buried in the crust of the earth, one person may have just as valid a claim upon it as any other.

But the critical distinction comes when someone actually does the work to dig it up, and refine it. According to the labor theory of value, things derive most of their value from the human effort required to produce them. Even a very precious natural resource like a diamond, has virtually no market value as long as it remains hidden in the earth. It is not until someone applies the effort necessary to dig it up and discover it, that its value has any meaning to mankind.

We can imagine, if such diamonds could be discovered very easily, they would be much less valuable. But it might take many days of time and effort, and processing tons of material, just to find a single one. This is what makes them so very valuable.

So the fruits of the earth must be discovered, harvested, refined, improved, and finally transported to where they will eventually be used. All this requires the work of people, who are not the fruit of the earth, but their own sovereign agents. Their work is their own—clearly not a part of the commons, and therefore not something other people can claim as a right.

A fine steel knife or a diamond ring contain natural elements that were once hidden in the earth. Yet they derive nearly all their value from the work and effort of those who took the time to produce them. No one else has an inherent right to claim that value.

We can say the same of less tangible assets such as a college degree, a life saving surgery, or even a bag of potatoes. Many people are tempted to extend Rousseau’s reasoning to knowledge, health or food. It seems like we should all have a right to such things as a good education, a doctor when we are sick, or a meal when we are hungry.

But while knowledge may be freely available to all, still we should not compel another person to teach us. We may have a right to enjoy our health, but we should not force someone else to treat us when we are sick. And our right to eat what we will does not extend to the food produced by the sweat of another man’s face.

To say otherwise is to believe that some people are nothing more than a natural resource, a part of the commons, something we can rightly begin to allocate according to the laws of civil society.

The commons is a valuable concept. Understanding it is a critical part of crafting a truly choice based public ethic. But we need to be careful not to go down a path of unchecked socialism, where all products and services are eventually thought to be a right, just because we want them to be.

Most individuals need the association of society in order to find happiness and fulfillment. But this does mean society should own or control the individual. A civil society built on the principles of authentic choice will protect the notions of self determination and private property, especially as it concerns one’s individual ownership of himself.

This will provide the greatest degree of freedom and choice for people. And it will also give us the freest and fairest distribution of natural and improved resources to those who want and need them most.