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Steve Randall and Larry Ely: Beyond town, gown flareups

“By the mere fact that he forms part of an organized crowd, a man descends several rungs in the ladder of civilization. Isolated, he may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd, he is a barbarian.”

— Gustave Le Bon, “The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind,” 1896

“In these days, when we are all becoming more concerned about the way we are using up our natural resources, polluting our environment, and destroying the ecological balance of nature, it still seems to some that there is an insuperable difficulty in doing anything ... about it. The difficulty is that any effective action ... seems to contradict one of the central concepts, and to undermine one of the basic institutions, on which all ... Western or liberal democratic societies are based: the concept and institution of individual property.”

— C.B. Macpherson, “Human Rights as Property Rights,” Dissent, 1977

Environmental catastrophe sparked the philosopher Macpherson to link ecological decline to modern property rights. Elaborating on Macpherson, we observe that disruptive student “recreations,” fleets of autos flowing down narrow “rural” corridors, evicted apartment dwellers, unhappy restaurateurs, expanding “bubble” rents and property values — all these are connected to property rights.

These controversies are connected by the economic impact of the University of Massachusetts, the colleges and property rights, both public and private, typical in our economy. Behemoth UMass stimulates demand for housing, food and entertainment. Tension arises over the division of these demands between public and private interests (state-supported higher education versus landlords, restaurateurs, property owners) even as the former stimulates most of the demand in the first place — a typical conflict between collective goals versus private profit-taking.

If, additionally, the public contribution to higher education falls as a percent of operating expenses, and state universities seek revenue by prioritizing enrollments over building dormitories, this conflict intensifies. Prowling for inflated rents along the shoreline of the campus, the private sector begins a feeding frenzy, while tenants on rent subsidy are replaced by students who can pay by splitting the rent. Should the university’s PR events include food, restaurateurs complain about “unfair competition.” A crescendo of land speculation is gathering force as developers arrive, such as Landmark Properties of Athens, Ga., which plans to build a massive complex accommodating 700 in the wooded Cushman area of Amherst. The urban forest will suffer, as will locals and spotted salamanders subjected to traffic and parties.

Macpherson describes how (in the modern economy) it seems illogical that property ownership could encompass both the right to exclude others from some uses of one’s property and the right not to be excluded from some uses of other’s property. By contrast, the blending of these rights was a common right historically. Common rights couldn’t be sold or alienated, and no one could accumulate profits from them. However, it is the modern tendency to regard property as an absolute and exclusive right — even as that has led us to social and ecological impasse in Amherst.

Stewardship of the natural environment will require rethinking the private part of property in recognition that you cannot take it with you. As Macpherson would say: “I must have the right to exclude you from my shirt, from my dinner, from my toothbrush, and from my bed.” Yet, at the same time, “a property in the means of labour — that is, in the resources, the land and capital, access to which I need in order to exert my energies and utilize my capacities — this does not need to be an exclusive property. It can, equally well, be the other kind of individual property — the right not to be excluded from some use or enjoyment of something.”

We could lessen the tension between public and private property by distributing students more evenly across the many campuses of the state higher education system. We could subsidize more campus dormitories and restrict off-campus housing to upperclassmen. Finally, we could redefine property rights to include larger obligations to the greater community. But so long as property rights are designed to take advantage of every profit opportunity when the public sector falters, the social and natural environment will decline as costs are externalized to others.

Steve Randall and Larry Ely write for the Pioneer Valley Relocalization Project and welcome comments by email at pvrelocal@gmail.com.

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