As John Locke tells the story in his Second Treatise on Government, land that is common becomes private property by the work that a person puts into it. Because work is an extension of oneself, working on land makes the land an extension of oneself and hence gives one the right to that which she has extended herself to (the gender of who works to own and whose work is owned by another is the subject of Carole Pateman’s The Sexual Contract, where she argues that under patriarchy women are the natural commons that men appropriate by working on).
Critical race theorists have long noted that Locke is largely responsible for the view that treating land as property is a sign of progress. Those who do not treat their land as private property are deemed backwards and uncivilized. Julie Ward notes how European officials thinking about Africa retain this notion that “entering into history” is a matter of entering into a certain notion of progress based on developing value out of land when she quotes then French President Sarkozy’s address in Senegal on the French-African relationship. Sarkozy remarked that, “The tragedy of Africa is that the African has not fully entered into history … They have never really launched themselves into the future…The African peasant only knew the eternal renewal of time, marked by the endless repetition of the same gestures and the same words…”
Steven Stoll’s Ramp Hollow returns to this question of how work produces property, and specifically what relations of production are required for work to produce property. Property is not only what a person can claim a right to access, as the commons can be, but also what one can freely alienate and exchange for value. Stoll’s account raises the question of which work gives one a right to land and which work does not. It puts the lie to the notion that property is acquired by work rather than by the willingness of government to recognize and enforce a right. Read more
One thing I realized in reading Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia is that all of us concerned with the extreme inequality in American life need a better way to talk about taxes. I found the discussion of the tax bill in terms of how individual families across the economic spectrum would be affected misleading. That approach seems to make the way we think about taxes into whether people at the bottom end have their tax burden alleviated, and if so, it is good. Insofar as liberals are willing to defend taxes, they do so by arguing that taxes support government services. The argument against tax cuts then becomes a defense of government on the basis of the services government provides for the poor. When poor people argue against taxes in general, liberals tend to argue that they are arguing against their self-interest. Liberals argue that taxes are not the problem, it is the regressive structure of taxes that puts the burden on the poor and middle-class and shifts the wealth to the rich, as the recently passed tax bill does.
Steven Stoll makes the case in Ramp Hollow that it was the introduction of a tax, specifically of a tax on whiskey that forced the enclosure of the commons in Appalachia and made previously independent mountaineers into people irrevocably tied to and dependent on the national economy and eventually dependent for their sustenance on coal companies. This case suggests that tax when used as a mechanism against those who live off of a commons is a coercive mechanism in the service of enforcing a capitalist economy, where those who might be laborers must work to increase value for capitalists rather than work independently for their own sustenance to the extent they wish to work. Capitalists are willing to pay a tax if the tax changes the relation of the mountaineers to their land, their labor and the national government. Later discussions of the distribution of the tax are incidental to this initial demand that everyone pay the tax, a demand that requires those living off the commons to turn their commodities into value, and thus to monetize what was previously beyond the scope of the national economy. At this stage in late capital, the distribution of the tax contributes to inequality, but knowing the history explains how taxes on rural populations in the early days of the United States were the coercive efforts of the government to enforce one economic system on those who had no need for it, and who received little support from the government in return for it. Read more
Somewhere along the way, the concept of “Tragedy of the Commons” has become an argument in defense of enclosure and private property. The term first came into use by British economist William Forster Lloyd in 1833 to argue that unregulated grazing on public land could destroy the land, but it has largely entered public discourse through sustainability advocates to describe the situation of what happens when public resources such as rivers are unrestricted, everyone fishes them, and the ecosystems that fostered the fishing are destroyed. Open to everyone, people act to deplete the resources for everyone. The argument of the tragedy of the commons has been used to justify restricting access to fishing and hunting in order to protect the common lands, not unlike the kinds of decisions people have been making about the commons for hundreds and hundreds of years.
Students have come to think that “tragedy of the commons” means that only what is held in private is properly managed. It’s not just students, though. This kind of argument has been put forth as the public justification for privatizing public services and utilities including the U.S. mail service as if the resources will only be well-managed when they are managed for a profit. On that point, there is little evidence. This reading misunderstands “the commons” as that which is unregulated and open to anyone, instead as that which serves the whole community. The whole community is invested in regulating and facilitating the protection of the commons when it is the source of sustenance for the whole community. The case for how this works has been made by 2009 Nobel Prize Laureate in Economic Sciences Elinor Ostrom. Read more