The Tragedy is “the Commons”

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Since Roman times, it has been held that certain resources, such as air and water, could not and should not be privately owned, but instead held “in common.” Today, “the commons” movement seeks to destroy private property rights by equating air and water with such man-made values as the Internet and the electrical grid. This booklet examines the ideas behind “the commons” and demonstrates how property rights can be applied to air and water.

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Commoners Want Your Mind

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Among the many dangerous ideas percolating through the progressive movement, “the commons” is one of the most insidious.

Since Roman times, it has been held that certain resources, such as air and water, cannot and should not be privately owned. Instead, these resources are held “in common” and they should be protected by the state. While this may seem plausible—you can’t put a fence around air—it is utterly and dangerously false. Property rights to air and water can be recognized.

The premise behind “the commons”—that the resources necessary for life should be held “in common”—has remained unchallenged. And progressives are taking it to its logical conclusion.

According to “commoners” (those who advocate for “the commons”) resources such as software, infrastructure, education, and information are now a part of “the commons” because they are so important to modern life. Ignoring the distinction between the man-made and the metaphysical, progressives want to subject authors, software developers, and others to the same dictatorial powers now exercised by the EPA. Of course, they don’t put it that way, but they certainly make their intentions clear.

For example, Nancy Kranich, in a report titled The Information Commons: A Public Policy Report, decries the fact that some websites require a paid subscription to access their information. She calls this “the enclosure of the commons of the mind.” She goes on to say that information should not be under the control of individuals, arguing that “the group” should define “who may participate in resource use and to what degree, and designating who will make management decisions.”

All of this is made to sound democratic, which it is. Remember, democracy means unlimited majority rule—the majority may do as it pleases because it is the majority. If the majority decides that your new software program should be available to all for free, you should not have any say in the matter. Your mind, according to Kranich, is a part of “the commons.”

The mind is man’s tools of survival. It is the mind that makes possible values such as software, infrastructure, and education. Environmentalists have long sought to destroy all human values. Commoners seek to shackle the human mind.

Enclosure and the “Commons”

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In the nineteenth century, many American ranchers opposed “enclosure”—the privatization of the open ranges. They argued that the ranges were “common property” and therefore, should remain open to all for use.

Today, a different group is opposing “enclosure” of information. They argue that information is “common property” and should not be protected by intellectual property rights.

For example, Nancy Kranich, in a report titled The Information Commons: A Public Policy Report, writes that “much online content is now wrapped, packaged, and restricted − treated as private rather than common property. This ‘walled garden’ or ‘enclosure’ online creates an inequitable and often inaccessible information marketplace.”

Most Americans would laugh at the absurdity of such a claim if it were applied to the material realm. Access to I-Phones, BMWs, and flat-screen televisions is restricted—to those who are willing and able to pay for them. This is true of any product or service. Yet, commoners (those who advocate for “the commons”) would have us believe that intellectual property is fundamentally different from material property.

The fact is, property—whether material or intellectual—comes into being by the thought and effort of some individual. If the products of these innovators are not theirs to use and dispose of as they choose, they are nothing more than slaves. And that is precisely what the commoners want. They want to control the innovative, the creative, and the productive.