What Do We Hold in Common?

3d earth

Nineteenth-Century Americans associated with the nativist American Party (a.k.a., “Know Nothings”) proposed extended probationary periods before immigrants could apply for U.S. citizenship. They also forwarded other policies aimed to press the assimilation of (mainly) Catholic immigrants, or at least to mold immigrant behavior to conform with the predominant scruples of American Protestants. (Some latitude was allowed German Lutherans, particularly with respect to temperance.) While nativist, however, the Know Nothing movement did not broadly advocate restrictions on immigration. I wondered in a prior post whether the Americanism of the American Party, namely, a commitment to the natural-rights position of humanity’s common ownership of the earth (consistent with the natural rights philosophy articulated in the Declaration of Independence at the nation’s founding), channeled their energies toward assimilation and away from restrictions.

But what of this commitment to the idea of humanity’s collective ownership of the earth? Is it feasible to believe it today? Does it depend on prior religious commitments? Even if one might adhere to the idea, what, if any, might be the implications of that commitment for American public policy in the 21st century? Today I muse about the first several questions related to the idea itself.

First a bit of jargon. Common or collective ownership of the earth should be distinguished from the idea of the joint ownership of the earth. With joint ownership no one owner can appropriate a piece of property without the consent of the other owners. Common ownership recognizes that anyone can lay a claim to any part of the earth and its fruit, provided that it’s not already being use. The failure to make this distinction was one of the oversights in Sir John Filmer’s criticism of earlier natural rights philosophers advancing the argument. (John Locke famously responds to Filmer in his First Treatise.)

Hugo Grotius, drawing on a simile of Cicero’s, analogizes the way that the theory of common ownership sets up privatization of property to the way seating occurs in an auditorium: Anyone may claim any seat as long as the seat doesn’t already have an occupant. No one needs the consent of the other attendees. Further, one’s claim to seating is limited to the seats one actually uses. So no space can go wasted. (One wonders about the implications of this notion of “use” for the practice of some folks at airports today of using unoccupied seats next to them for their baggage, thereby forcing other people to stand.) Common ownership as a starting point looks to allow individuals to privatize common property. Allowing people to appropriate land for their individual use and ownership, with the provision in Locke that “good enough is left to others,” is a means by which the bounty of the earth increases, often times greatly, rather than a means by which resources are denied to others.

But why common ownership as a starting point?

Natural rights theorists, such as Grotius and Locke, appealed both to the Bible as well as to reason in positing the starting point of humanity’s common ownership of the earth. Some modern theorists, such as philosopher Mathais Risse, in his book, On Global Justice, have sought to establish the claim on non-religious grounds.

While the biblical basis for the claim of the common ownership of the earth is well known, it was not without contestation by others, Sir Robert Filmer, mentioned above, and to whom John Locke replied in his First Treatise, being perhaps the best known today. Filmer argued that the earth was given to Adam privately, not to humanity in general. The texts that they disputed over remain somewhat familiar even today. For example, the Psalmist writes that “the heavens are the heavens of the Lord, but the earth he has given to the sons of men” (Ps 115.18). And several texts in the book of Genesis in which God gives permission to Adam and Eve (and later to Noah) to use the produce of the earth (1.29, 2.16, 9.3).

Philospher Mathais Risse seeks to articulate a theory of the common ownership of the earth without “religious input.” Risse bases his theory on three assumptions or claims. I’m unsure that any of the claims is more plausibly defensible than the theological claims of his theistic common-ownership precursors. Risse, however, articulates the intuition as to why he thinks some version of the theory of the common ownership of the earth is true. And that intuition seems to me a compelling impetus toward a theory of common ownership, whether one finds Risse’s particular defense of it is plausible or not. Risse’s intuition is motivated by this thought:

[S]upppose the population of the United States shrinks to two, but they control access through border surveillance mechanisms. Nothing changes elsewhere. Surely these two should permit immigration since they are grossly underusing their area. We can best explain this view by the fact that all of humanity has claims to the earth.

The sense of injustice of exclusion in this hypothetical case, for Risse, motivates the nub of belief in common ownership. From this nub Risse then develops his non-theistic theory of common ownership of the earth, and then draws implications akin to what Grotius and other natural rights philosophers drew from their more theistically-based theories.

It is this latter point that make Risse’s argument of interest today, beyond the non-theistic theory he seeks to articulate. To wit, what is the relevance of the theory, if any, to modern policy issues. Locke appeals to the common ownership of the earth and moves quickly to other matters once individuals have privatized the commons. Grotius (and Risse) follow Locke in recognizing the privatization of most of the earth for most purposes. But Grotius’s works focus rather more on the continuing implications of the residuum of the starting point in debates current in his day. And this is what makes the theory of continuing interest and relevance today. As Risse points out, “the concept of original ownership delivers a moral viewpoint from which to think about immigration, one that shows that immigration is not exclusively a matter for any state to regulate according to its own interests.”

James R. Rogers

James Rogers is associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University, and is a fellow with the Institute for Science, Technology and Public Policy at the Bush School of Government and Public Service. He also served as editor of the Journal of Theoretical Politics from 2006 through 2013.

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  1. gabe says

    Sounds wonderful doesn’t it – IF we are talking about acreage and / or farmland.

    However, how well does it work when we are actually talking about jobs / employment, etc?

    Also, it fails to account for the differences in cultural dispositions / inclinations – or are we to assume that not only will we permit this unlimited stream of immigration to acquire *free* land but also a) either live in isolation or b) (perhaps the Nativist position) assimilate into the cultural mainstream.
    And let us not so facilely say, “yes, that is what we libertarian, open borders types will do” – given that the most salient cultural feature of the past 30 years has been to deny, denigrate and destroy the native culture and posit all manner of arguments (diversity, multiculturalism) against assimilation.

    No, Sir!

    What we hold in Common ought to be a “Common Mind.”


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