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Whatever the merits of privatising the Royal Mail, it is certain to revive the old calumny that Conservatives ‘know the price of everything and the value of nothing’ and that, consequently, we forget that some things aren't for sale.

Writing for the Washington Monthly on the subject of common ownership, Timothy Noah quotes from a recent Alan Bennett play:

  • “One of the sharper satirical jabs in People… occurs when a consortium of wealthy investors decides to purchase Winchester Cathedral. ‘I know it’s pricey,’ says an absurdly practical-minded archdeacon, ‘but Winchester is such a good idea.’ ‘Isn’t it?’ replies the consortium’s smooth-as-silk agent. ‘And after all, the school is private, so why shouldn’t the cathedral be private too?’ Warming to the topic, the archdeacon proposes ‘a series of exclusive celebrity Eucharists [for] leading figures in business, sport, and the world of entertainment.’”

Of course, unlike the Royal Mail, Winchester Cathedral isn’t owned by the state, but by that ultimate Big Society institution – the Church of England. In a broader sense, cathedrals belong to a category of ownership that Jonathan Rowe (a collection of whose writings are reviewed here by Timothy Noah) called “the commons”:

  • “By ‘commons’ he meant things that are widely shared as a matter of law or sometimes mere convention. In the most literal sense, a common is a public park… But in the broader sense commons can mean anything that’s available to all takers for at most a nominal fee. It can be a work of timeless literature no longer under copyright. It can be an invention of enormous societal value on which a patent either expired or (as in the heroically selfless cases of Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine and Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web) was never claimed. It can be the air we breathe, or the water we drink. It can be an experience we all go through, such as childhood or old age. It can be the absence of something we hate, like noise. It can be Wikipedia. It can be an ocean beach. It can be free Wi-Fi.”

Because the commons “is a realm that lies outside conventional market economics” its value can be overlooked – if only because it is hard to put an objective price on things that are never bought and sold. Nevertheless, the commons “creates wealth—sometimes monetary, sometimes spiritual or psychic—for us all.”

It is a shame that conservatives are often seen as being hostile to the commons. In part, this is down to the usual leftwing practice of character assassination, but we have brought some of it down on ourselves through an over-emphasis on private ownership, as if it were the only alternative to state control.

In fact, as Jonathan Rowe recognised, ‘the commons’ represents something distinct from both state and market:

  • “Rowe was reared in a conservative household, and though his politics subsequently turned leftward he never entirely lost his distaste for big government… The commons worked best, Rowe felt, when it stood apart from both government and commerce, which is why Rowe would have howled with laughter at Alan Bennett’s use of Winchester Cathedral to lampoon market worship.”

Both state and market can also strengthen the commons – and the internet is a prime example. No one owns the internet as a whole, it was originally created by the US military, underwent a further stage of incubation within the academic world and subsequently flourished through the input of private enterprise. It is therefore a shared space and the role of government should not be to take it over or sell it off, but to support those who use it in maintaining common standards.

For that reason, David Cameron is right to heed the widespread calls to limit online access to abusive and extreme pornography. Though some people regard the internet as belonging entirely to the private realm, the reality is very different. Like a public park or a cathedral it actually belongs to the commons and the common standards required to keep it that way are not just technical in nature.

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