The Commons: The Most Ignored & Essential Part of Democracy

“Conservatives” don’t want a discussion of the commons because they want to plunder it for private gain

Photo by matthias iordache on Unsplash

It’s almost entirely absent from our political dialogue, but the issue of who owns the commons and how they’re to be used (and by whom) is at the core of almost all the major debates between Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, and even those advocating democracy versus those trying to install oligarchy.

The commons is the stuff we all use: The air and water, the public roads and schools, the police and fire departments, the airways that our planes fly over and through which we send radio and TV signals, outer space and our oceans.

The commons, in aggregate, are one of the major stores of the wealth of a nation.

The commons of the oil or minerals under public lands are owned by we the people, for example, but there are people and corporations that want to take those resources and convert them to their own private profit.

One of the main reasons people throughout history have established governments is to protect and regulate the commons.

Which explains why some people and corporations are in a constant battle with government, and launch massive propaganda campaigns to say the government should be “smaller” and thus less able to protect the commons.

Whether it’s oil barons, or greedy ranchers who want to use public lands to graze their cows without paying a public fee that would help maintain and restore those lands, the commons are under continuous low-level assault by greed.

Similarly, polluters from mining companies to frackers to industrial operations increase their profits by dumping their poison into our commons, our air, soil and water, rather than paying the cost of cleaning up their own waste.

One of the biggest political battles of our day is defining the exact boundaries of the commons.

About half of all the electric and water utility companies in America are owned by the people, operated by state or local governments for the benefit of the citizens who use them.

The other half are run by private corporations, with a goal of generating profit out of these commons for a small number of shareholders and senior executives.

History and contemporary studies show that when the commons are administered by the people who use them, particularly water and electric systems, they are better cared for and their benefits are provided to the people at a lower cost.

A great example of this is how Chattanooga, Tennessee has decided that Internet is part of the commons and the city is now providing extraordinarily high-quality, super fast broadband to all its citizens at an astonishingly low-cost.

For generations, communities across America have engaged in this seesaw battle with forces that would privatize the commons; water and electricity are the examples most people would immediately recognize, but if cable companies use public rights-of-way to get their Internet or TV signal into your home, shouldn’t that be considered part of the commons?

Numerous communities have decided that the answer is yes, which is why when cable companies were first becoming a thing we required them to offer local cable-access television and to fund C-SPAN as a public good.

It’s also why we’ve regulated radio and television, requiring them to “program in the public good” (to quote the old Fairness Doctrine), as the air through which radio waves travel is part of the commons.

Because one of the principal functions of government is to administer the commons, government itself is the most important of the commons.

Anybody who wants to exploit the commons for their own private profit would have to go through government, or corrupt government, in order to make that happen.

This is one of the main reasons that we have laws against bribery of public officials, and access to the commons for private exploitation is one of the most common ways private interests corrupt government. Witness Donald Trump putting an oil lobbyist in charge of the EPA and a coal lobbyist in charge of our public lands running the Interior Department.

Privatizing public lands, public schools, prisons and other obvious commons-related functions of government is a crime against Democracy.

A much bigger crime, however, is privatizing government itself, or “Shrinking it down to the size where you can drown it in the bathtub,” as K Street lobbyist Grover Norquist proposed some years ago on NPR.

In most developed countries, the healthcare system that is so essential to maintaining a robust and healthy populace is considered a core part of the commons. That notion is foundational to the proposal for Medicare For All here in America.

Similarly, opponents of privatizing our voting systems by turning them over to private, for-profit companies will tell you that privatizing the vote, what Thomas Paine referred to as the beating heart of democracy, is one of the ultimate crimes against the commons.

Depriving people access to the commons of the vote, the vehicle by which we choose government that administers all the rest of the commons, is another crime against both the commons and democracy.

There are currently over 200 pieces of Republican-sponsored legislation in various state legislatures that would make it more difficult for people to vote. Almost exclusively, these bills would reduce the ability of young people, elderly people, city-dwellers and minorities to vote, as the Republican Party sees these people as their political enemies.

Denying people access to the commons based on the color of their skin, in fact, is one of the oldest crimes against democracy that has been perpetrated throughout the history of America.

When we understand what the commons is, and have a collective consensus about what is and isn’t part of the commons, we can have an informed discussion about the proper role and size of government.

Until we frame our debates around the commons, it will continue to seem like most of our political debates are simply arguments about separate, discrete issues. In fact, most are about how the commons are controlled, protected and used, and to his benefit.

We used to teach Civics in America; that mandate pretty much ended when Ronald Reagan put the anti-public-school advocate, Bill Bennett, in charge of the Education Department.

If our republic is to be successful, we must revive a robust discussion and debate about the commons.

America’s #1 progressive talk show host & NY Times bestselling author. Thom’s latest project is the “Hidden History” series of books.

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