Protect the Commons!

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from off the goose.

The law demands that we atone
When we take things we do not own
But leaves the lords and ladies fine
Who take things that are yours and mine.

The poor and wretched don’t escape
If they conspire the law to break;
This must be so but they endure
Those who conspire to make the law.

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
And geese will still a common lack
Till they go and steal it back.

This wonderful old poem, author unknown, is employed by Duke University Professor of Law, James Boyle to introduce his cogent analysis of The Second Enclosure Movement and the Construction of the Public Domain. Boyle’s focus is on intellectual property rights and the “intangible commons”, but his powerful piece discusses some overlapping or analogous concerns regarding the physical commons. This passionate ballad serves brilliantly as prologue because it rails against the inequities of one of the great privatization schemes in Western history – the English enclosure movement.

Enclosure, summarized ever so briefly, describes the process through which farmland shared in common for communal grazing and agriculture or marginal land such as fens and moors were fenced off for private use, typically pasturage for wool production. The enclosure movement dramatically altered the English way of life, ushering in enormous economic and social upheavals that had a profound influence on modern society. Proponents and opponents of enclosure may argue vehemently about whether the changes wrought by enclosure were, in the long run, positive or negative. One’s position on this matter will offer clear insight into where he or she falls on the privatization of public lands today.

We cannot go back in time to manage the English enclosure movement more efficiently or humanely. We can and should, however, recognize that the forces at play, the arguments used to defend taking from the weak to give to the strong, are at work right this very minute. One of the implications of the enclosure movement discussed in the Wikipedia was the shift in belief regarding the importance of “common wealth” (usually implying common livelihoods) as opposed to the “public good” (the wealth of the nation or the GDP). If you’re not sure what that means, consider how hollow pronouncements of the strength of the U.S. economy ring when real wages for most workers are dropping. Think about how outsourcing labor abroad produces such wealth for shareholders but such misery for people trying to get decent jobs. The fact that enclosure or a modern equivalent thereof may produce a net economic gain must be reconciled with the understanding that this gain accrues to far fewer people. In other words, the greater agricultural efficiencies introduced by enclosure may have benefited England and most certainly benefited the landowners, but that was little solace to the peons suddenly deprived of access to the base necessities of survival.

In the modern enclosure movement, we’re all peons.

Written by Mike
Mike is a leading authority in the field of standardized test preparation, but he's also a traveler who fully expects to see every bird in the world. Besides founding 10,000 Birds in 2003, Mike has also created a number of other entertaining but now extirpated nature blog resources, particularly the Nature Blog Network and I and the Bird.