Yearning for the Commons
The concept of property early settlers had wasn't a walled fortress; it was a permeable membrane that sought to reconcile the parts and the whole. Early New Englanders built their towns around a commons, a shared pasture for livestock. Private woodlands were open to others for hunting or cutting wood, unless owners fenced them.
Water law, so important in the new land, reflected this desire for balance. You could use the water that ran through your land, but not in a way that diminished your neighbor's use. The water belongs to all of us, the law said, and ownership has responsibilities as well as rights. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which laid out a plan of government for what is now much of the upper Midwest, declared that the main waterways there "shall be common highways and forever free."
Such thinking isn't a quaint relic of a simpler time. It's rooted in a fundamental economic truth - namely, the symbiosis between the private and the common.
Private property couldn't exist without a society that honors and protects it. The value of property derives largely from the efforts of others, or gifts of nature. Take a Park Avenue apartment, or a Cape Cod cottage, put it in a cornfield or urban slum, and you'd better reduce the asking price. The structure is the same; the difference is what's around it. The real estate mantra "location, location, location" really means "gifts, gifts, gifts" - of society and nature. This is true of financial assets as well
as real estate. In fact, it's true to a degree of all human production and creation. Every invention, business technique, story, and song draws on what has come before. I couldn't write this, nor you read it, without the English language - a gift to both of us. We all stand on many shoulders; and earlier concepts of property acknowledged this.
Orrin Judd sees things differently:
I tend to agree with Orrin. In the supposed golden times that the author pines about, people had an intimate knowledge of maybe 50 people in their immediate community, and just about nothing of the vast rest of humanity. They lived in a cocoon of a different kind. Our cocoons are less spatially restricted, organized around work and interests. We create our own virtual cocoons, filtering our contacts through the identity templates we create for ourselves. This is normal and natural. People just cannot handle more than 50 or so meaningful, personal relationships with others. Personal relationships require a commitment of some part of ourselves, and we don't have that much of ourselves to pass around.
One wonders if the problem isn't precisely the opposite, that in an Information Age we're exposed to the ideas of others like never before and upon that exposure are made contemptuous of those we naturally disagree with.
The problem we have today is that there are constant intrusions from the outside, barbarians at the gates, trying to break into our cocoons. Marketers trying to get into our skins. Political parties trying to earn our personal commitments. Religious missionaries trying to breach our identity barriers. Just plain nosy people trying to improve or manage our lives for us. The communications revolution has made these assaults more intrusive than ever before. We are now subject to the entreaties of strangers who may come from any corner of the globe, armed with personal information about ourselves that no earlier age would make accessible. It is a transactional, "hit and run" intimacy, a micro relationship that exists long enough to transact business or change a mind on some peripheral issue that we may know or care nothing about.
The virtual cocoons seems artificial and unnatural, which they are. The older cocoons were organic, natural. The intimacies that were engendered lasted lifetimes, and facilitated deep interpersonal transactions both economic, social and spiritual. We were once settled folk, now we are nomads. But our cocoon creation is a natural response to an unnatural environment. It is like a ship at sea, an artificial construct of dry land in a fluid wasteland. Some people never get used to its motions, and suffer a sense of "cocoon-sickness" that tells them something is not right. They look to the horizon for a point of land, a journey's end where they can disembark and live the settled life again. It is an island that no longer exists, a bucolic Atlantis sunk beneath the waves of modernity. Others , born and bred to know nothing else, feel at home in this floating virtual home, and would never turn their backs on the modern "sea" for the quaint stillness of such an ancient life.