Are Democracy and Common Property Possible on Our Small Earth?

By Swaney, James A. | Journal of Economic Issues, June 2003 | Go to article overview

Are Democracy and Common Property Possible on Our Small Earth?


Swaney, James A., Journal of Economic Issues


The keynote of democracy as a way of life maybe expressed. .. as the necessity for the participation of every mature human being in formation of the values that regulate the living of men together.

John Dewey

Writing in the 1930s ... Dewey had plenty of company in sensing a crisis of democracy But from the perspective of the present day, his concerns seem excessive. I am not a pollyanna. But have we not muddled through quite well in the last six decades despite being a people increasingly disengaged from a serious and well informed interest in the political process? Election turnout, for example, is substantially lower than when Dewey was writing; education in civics and political history has dwindled; the funding of political campaigns has become a process of quasi-bribery. ... And yet the sky has not fallen.

Richard A. Posner

If not a Pollyanna, Posner is most certainly an apologist for the status quo, which Kevin Phillips has aptly labeled the corporate plutocracy (Phillips 2002). Along with the quasi-bribery of elections, the symbiotic relationship between legislators and lobbyists has severely damaged democracy in the United States. Other factors eroding democracy include the commercialization of education, media consolidation, "news" uniformity advanced by commercial interests who have extended their reach into public broadcasting, extension of applications of psychology from the cultivation of consumer tastes to the cultivation of political ideology and voter perception, economic globalization that exerts downward pressure on environmental and labor standards as well as on wages, and a consumer culture that has elevated material wealth to "be all, end all."

Adam Smith worried that monotony and drudgery would render workers incapable of the basic duties of citizenship. The shrinking workweek of roughly the first two-thirds of the twentieth century weakened Smith's argument, but in the last decades both the workweek and the number of workers per household have been expanding. The typical American has time to watch "reality" television programs but little time for civic duty. We have been bribed and tricked into civic irresponsibility by the ever-seductive, ever-elusive "good life," and the result is government by and for monied interests, primarily corporations.

Economic as well as political democracy is a value deeply rooted in institutionalism. Dewey's instrumental valuing is a thoroughly democratic notion, as it involves widespread participation of the members of a community in defining and solving their own problems, While apparently not influenced by Dewey, institutionalists Karl Polanyi and K. William Kapp, environmental sentries in the l940s and 1950s, were strong advocates for economic as well as political democracy, a point to which we will return. (1)

The central thesis of this essay is that successful approaches to many environmental threats will involve property institutions "more like" common property and "less like" either private or state property. Furthermore, since common property institutions usually exhibit a fairly equal distribution of claims to resource services and typically involve all resource owners in important decisions, common property regimes are generally more conducive to economic democracy than are either private or state property regimes.

The first section provides the conceptual basis for understanding why the most important environmental problems do not involve "running our" of resources. As institutionalists have long recognized, advances in knowledge and their application (technology) relieve resource scarcities in most cases. But there is much more to the story. Application of basic economic concepts and principles of physics and ecology to contemporary circumstances suggests that the "running out" concern is secondary and diversionary on one hand, yet, somewhat paradoxically, primary and central on the other. …

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Are Democracy and Common Property Possible on Our Small Earth?
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