Monday, March 24, 2008

Do I need a cow to participate?

I have been distributing an essay (in PDF format) I wrote about the commons and getting a lot of praise for it. But there has been some push back, and most of it is about the name “the commons.” The main premise of the comments is that the commons is not a known name or idea, and before it gets known, we should seriously think about whether this is the word we want to lead with:

“Not to be totally punny, but the word is too common. You don’t want such an ordinary word describing something as important as the commons.”

“It is too British. I live in New York City—we don’t do too much grazing here.”

“It is so old-fashioned. When I hear it, I think I am going to have to endure a re-enactment of Ben Franklin or someone like that.”

“It is too rural. I feel like I have to go somewhere carrying a small sheep”

There are other words that have similar meanings to the commons, or are even a sort of subset of the commons, for example:

Public Space: Describes places that the public is invited to go to with little or no entrance fee (beyond the taxes we pay). Parks, libraries, plazas, streets and sidewalks are public spaces.

Common Good: Describes policies and customs that are judged to be what is best for the whole public even if such a policy or custom might, at times, be inconvenient for an individual. Universal health care means that I pay for a health system whether I use it or not, and I do this for two reasons: I want it to be there for me if I need it, but more important, I think access to health care for all people is a right, and as a member of the community I am willing to pay for that.

Bien Commun: French for Public Good, having a larger meaning than common good, yet not quite as encompassing as the commons. Bien commun would probably include free speech and civic engagement.

I love words, and so I encourage people to keep thinking of ways to describe or replace “the commons”. Because for all the criticism of the word, people are using it and thinking about what it means. And that’s what counts.