What are the Commons?

Yet it is quite true in one sense that monasteries are devoted to Communism and that monks are all Communists.  Their economic and ethical life is an exception to a general civilization of feudalism or family life.  Yet their privileged position was regarded as rather a prop of social order.  They give to certain communal ideas their proper and proportionate place in the State; and something of the same thing was true of the Common Land. We should welcome the chance of allowing any guilds or groups of a communal colour their proper and proportionate place in the State; we should be perfectly willing to mark off some part of the land as Common Land… 

G.K. Chesterton, Outline of Sanity I.4

Commons are not governed by the market, in which individuals exchange private property, nor by the state, in which the public authority metes out distributive justice. Rather, they are governed by the cooperative authority of the people who use the commons. Historically, commons appear in traditional agrarian societies as common pastures for grazing livestock, common forests to gather wood, and common rivers for irrigation and fishing. These are not stockpiles of resources to be used up, traded, or distributed. Rather, they are ecological systems which are “tilled and kept” by their human lords for the common good (Genesis 2:15). In the formula of David Bollier, ‘a resource + a community + a set of social protocols = the commons.’ (“The Commons: Short and Sweet”)

Socialists sometimes claim that the commons are part of the history of collectivism. “But when we look at historic small farm societies, common property and private property rights usually occur together” (A Small Farm Future, page 173).  In fact, as Hillaire Belloc describes, the commons are part of the history of distributism

There was common land, but it was common land jealously guarded by men who were also personal proprietors of other land. Common property in the village was but one of the forms of property, and was used rather as the fly-wheel to preserve the regularity of the co-operative machine than as a type of holding in any way peculiarly sacred. (The Servile State, Section III)

Commons were important in the medieval village because they supported the family farm. A peasant might own only a few acres, but through the commons he had access to much more. 

Some people claim that the commons inevitably led to poverty, because selfish individuals would free-ride on the land and destroy it. But historically, it was the enclosure of the commons, a capitalist movement starting in the early 16th century in which the state stole common land and gave it to private owners, which made agricultural life increasingly difficult and forced peasants off the land. “Economies of scale, especially in the agricultural sector, end up forcing smallholders to sell their land or to abandon their traditional crops” (Laudato Si’ § 129).

So how do commons operate? In general, commons are protected from overuse by agreements within the village membership. “A commons is not a free-for-all.” Rather it often limits use to basic needs, not wants. “Intimate local interaction also lowers the cost of managing and monitoring the commons” (A Small Farm Future, pages 181-183). Unfortunately, liberalism inevitably rejects the authority of local communities to govern their customs. Commons are difficult to maintain without a subsidiary state

A commons allows a community to protect the future of their land from distant businessmen or state officials, who have no personal attachments and are often happy to exploit and destroy the land for profit. A community, who understands the local environment, weather, plants, and animals, can responsibly use the land for generations. Pope Francis explains that “attempts to resolve all problems through uniform regulations or technical interventions can lead to overlooking the complexities of local problems which demand the active participation of all members of the community. New processes taking shape cannot always fit into frameworks imported from outside; they need to be based in the local culture itself” (Laudato Si’ § 144).