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11 Conservative Commoners, Once

Jonathan Rowe Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

Few things would shake up American politics as much as clarifying the term conservative. From the daily media one might surmise that conservatives are people who hate taxes and gays and love markets and religion. But the conservative tradition runs deeper than that, and in some ways contrary to it.

Conservatism is, or at least used to be, a way of thinking about society as a whole and the qualities that help maintain it. Edmund Burke, the father of Anglo-Saxon conservatism, believed society is an organic whole—a “community of souls,” as his twentieth-century follower Russell Kirk put it.1

This view of society has large implications. For one thing, it means that people have a duty to support the whole with taxes. “Are all the taxes to be voted grievances?” Burke asked rhetorically, and dismissively, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). For another, it means that humanity must take the long view. Society is a partnership “not only between those who are living,” Burke wrote, “but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”

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Chapter 6 Trusteeship of Creation

Peter Barnes Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

God gave the care of his earth and its species to our first parents.
That responsibility has passed into our hands.
National Association of Evangelicals
, 2004

Gifts of creation were produced only once and are irreplaceable. By contrast, products traded in markets tend to be massproduced and highly disposable. Its hard to imagine a deity whod view such temporal goods as equivalent to his or her enduring handiwork. The question is whether creations irreplaceable gifts are different enough to merit different treatment by our economic operating system. A strong case can be made that they are.

The case is moral as well as economic. The moral argument is that we have a duty to preserve irreplaceable gifts of creation, whereas we have no comparable duty toward transient commercial goods. The economic argument is that any society that depletes its natural capital is bound to become impoverished over time. I find both lines of argument convincing.

But whats the reality today? Here we encounter two disconcerting facts. The first is that there are very few property rights protecting natures gifts. With the exception of a few set-asides such as parks and wilderness areas, we subject creations gifts to the same rules as Wal-Marts merchandise. The second is that the right of corporations to profit dominates all other rights.

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21 New Institutions Needed

Jonathan Rowe Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

The kind of social structure that makes commons productive in the Alps of Switzerland, the rice fields of the Philippines, and many other settings are not always possible in the United States. What’s more, some commons—such as the oceans and the atmosphere—are too large to be amenable to participatory management. The challenge is to build formal institutions that replicate the essential features of commons even if they cannot include the social dynamic of local settings.

One essential feature is equity. Commons serve all, either equally or by a just distributional standard, subject to necessary rules for access and use. A second essential feature is inter-generational responsibility. Corporations are programmed to maximize gains for the quarter or year. Commons, properly designed, are encoded to preserve assets for future generations.

There are times when government can manage commons according to these rules. For example, Central Park functions admirably as a commons under city ownership. But government ownership is not always possible or best. In the United States, continuing pressure on national forests and other public lands illustrates the vulnerability of ownership that is ultimately political. At the local level, there are similar pressures to invade public spaces with corporate sponsorships, advertising, and so on.

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Chapter 3 The Limits of Government

Peter Barnes Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property,
is in reality instituted for the defense of those who have
some property against those who have none at all
.
Adam Smith, 1776

In his essay The Tragedy of the Commons, Garrett Hardin envisioned only two ways to save the commons: statism and privatism. Either a coercive government would have to stop humans from mindlessly destroying the planet, or private property owners, operating in a free market, would have to do the job. In the next two chapters Ill show why neither of these approaches suffices.

In considering the potential of governmental remedies, lets clarify what we mean. Were not talking about tyranny; were talking about legitimate forms of government activity such as regulation, taxation, and public ownership. Can these traditional methods effectively preserve common wealth for our children?

The notion that government should protect the commons goes back a long way. Sometimes this duty is considered so basic its taken for granted. At other times, its given a name: the public trust. Several states actually put this duty in writing. Pennsylvanias constitution, for example, declares: Pennsylvanias public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people. Note that in this constitutional dictum, serving as trustee of natural resources isnt an option for the state, its an affirmative duty.

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1 Our Hidden Wealth

Jonathan Rowe Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

My wife grew up in what Western experts, not without condescension, call a “developing” country. The social life of her village revolved largely around a tree. People gathered there in the evening to visit, tell stories, or just pass the time. Some of my wife’s warmest childhood memories are of playing hide-and-seek late into the evening while adults chatted under the tree.

The tree was more than a quaint meeting place; it was an economic asset in the root sense of that word. It produced a bonding of neighbors, an information network, an activity center for kids, and a bridge between generations. Older people could be part of the flow of daily life, and children got to experience something scarce in the United States today—an unstructured and noncompetitive setting in which their parents were close at hand.

In the United States we spend hundreds of billions of dollars on everything from community centers to kiddie videos to try to achieve those results, with great inefficiency and often much less positive effect. Yet most Western economists would regard the tree as a pathetic state of underdevelopment. They would urge “modernization,” by which they would mean cutting down the tree and making people pay money for what it provided. In their preferred vision, corporate-produced entertainment would displace local culture. Something free and available to all would become commodities sold for a price. The result would be “growth” as economists understand that term.

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