From a Timothy Noah review of a new book about the commons, authored by Jonathan Rowe, and published posthumously:

Rowe’s celebration of ancient-but-durable communal resources like the town square raises the question of whether his ultimate quarrel was with modernity. Rowe was reared in a conservative household, and though his politics subsequently turned leftward he never entirely lost his distaste for big government. (We sometimes argued about that; I feel more comfortable with bigness.) The commons worked best, Rowe felt, when it stood apart from both government and commerce, which is why Rowe would have howled with laughter at Alan Bennett’s use of Winchester Cathedral to lampoon market worship. (Though a state-established religion, the Church of England isn’t really part of the British government.) Rowe remained enough of a conservative to experience sincere irritation that Reagan Republicans ignored the critique of commercial culture set forth in one of their movement’s founding documents, Russell Kirk’s 1953 book, The Conservative Mind. “Kirk was in some ways a fusty aristocrat,” Rowe writes, “but he was honest enough to acknowledge as a conservative that markets need boundaries, just as the state does.” Kirk’s Burkean-style conservatism, which emphasized “community, locality, tradition, and virtue,” has been displaced, Rowe complains, by a “politically expedient and cynical” conservatism that boils down to “a belief that it is okay to waste the patrimony so long as somebody makes money doing it.”


A glory of the Web and Wikipedia, like the glory of the commons in its older forms, is that it’s something we all possess that we don’t have to think about. One message of market fundamentalism is that we must never, ever take anything in life for granted. “When did that stop?” asks a sympathetic character in Bennett’s People. “Taking things for granted.” The 1980s, the archdeacon answers matter-of-factly. “Everything had a price. If it didn’t have a price it didn’t have a value.” Bennett has written that he, too, misses the pre-Thatcher feeling of taking good things for granted: “The state has never frightened me. Why should it? It gave me my education (and in those days it was a gift); it saved my father’s life as on occasion it has saved mine.” Replace the word “state” with “commons” and Rowe would nod in vigorous agreement. When we take too few of life’s riches for granted, we are all of us poorer, no matter how much cash we have in the bank. Jon understood that in his bones.

Noah faults modern conservatives for undermining the sense of the commons by viewing everything through the lens of the market. Of course he has a point. Much less remarked on, however, is how modern liberals have done the same thing, by undermining a common moral sense — this, by placing a high priority on individualism and liberty in personal behavior. It becomes harder and harder to appeal to common standards of behavior, much less to enforce them, because they do not exist as they once did.

We learn to tolerate or to ignore behavior that used to be frowned on and stigmatized because we don’t want to pass judgment. I’m thinking at the moment about how discourteously many people behave in public, as if they owe no respect to others around them. As if they were free to do exactly as they pleased. As if self-assertion and display were their right. I’m speaking very generally, but if there are no common standards — and those common standards will vary from culture to culture — it becomes difficult to maintain common spaces. If the common good is only thought of as the sum total of all the individual goods, the commons becomes a problematic concept.

In the early 1990s, it was thought that “public/private” places like Universal’s CityWalk would be the coming thing. Remember that? It was a facsimile of a three-block urban commercial landscape — sidewalks, street cafes, etc. — that was supposed to be an idealized version of the city. It was clean, safe, and … well, it was weird. It was like an outdoor mall. The idea was that it looked and felt like an actual city street, but because it was on private property, it was much easier to police by keeping the antisocial element out. One can see the attraction, in principle, of such a place, however ersatz the execution, but there’s no denying that a place like CityWalk is a defeat for the commons. If we are thought so incapable of governing ourselves that the only safe and desirable places to gather together are spaces under private ownership, then we have lost something precious.

Anyway, it’s interesting to think about how contemporary individualism, in both its left-wing and right-wing expressions, has worked to liberate the individual at the expense of the commons. It’s in our American cultural DNA. I think we’re all complicit in this; I know I am. It’s easy for us to look at people who don’t share our convictions or tastes and think that they should give up this or that individualist practice for the sake of the common good, but it’s hard to look at ourselves and decide what we should be willing to sacrifice for the same goal.

I’m a strong proponent of the liberty to homeschool, as you know, but there can be no doubt that choosing to opt out of the schools to which most in one’s community attend weakens the sense of the commons. But I think the good obtained by homeschooling is worth it, and I’m willing to fight for the liberty to homeschool. You have your own sacred individualist cows, for which you can surely make good arguments. I keep going back to Alan Ehrenhalt’s great book The Lost City, in which he calls out all of us on this point. Ehrenhalt says most people want the close-knit feeling of community and common purpose we used to have in this country 60 or more years ago, but very few of us are willing to accept the strong limits on personal behavior and consumer choice that are inseparable from the strong sense of the commons we shared. If everybody is prepared to be part of the commons, but only on their own terms, then it’s hard to say we have a real sense of the commons. We like to think of ourselves as citizens, but really, aren’t most of us really just consumers?