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When I was a kid, the German Community (where my mother and father grew up) had a huge signpost at the crossroads indicating the direction to each farm. I don’t know who put up the signpost, but I would guess that the Wiegensteins might have been involved, as their place was near the crossroads. It might also have been a Brewen.

Anyway, when we moved out to Reynolds County, my dad duplicated that effort, putting up a post at the fork in the road showing which way to go to each family’s house and how far it would be. When a new family moved in, or an old family moved out, he would saw up a new pine board and paint the name or take down the old sign. When age forced them off the farm, I took down his sign and have kept it ever since. Recently I freshened up the paint with the help of my daughter, and I plan to hang it as a decoration and a memory.

We hear frequent mention these days of the “tragedy of the commons,” a term used in Garrett Hardin’s famous environmental article about the hazards of unregulated common use of such things as air, water, and so forth. And we see examples of the tragedy of the commons everywhere. Yesterday I drove to St. Louis on Interstate 70, the main artery of the state, a highway which is is dreadful repair because our legislators cannot summon up the political will to fund its proper upkeep — not because they don’t recognize the need to improve it, but because their individual self-interest (getting reelected by avoiding the “he voted to raise taxes” canard) outweighs in their mind the general good that would be gained by pulling up their socks and raising the money to fix it.

But the commons — and a proper appreciation of the commons — is also a blessing. It all depends on how you view it. Nobody made a rule that a signpost be created; someone just did it. Someone with an understanding that taking time and effort to promote the general welfare (now where have I heard those words before?) is in itself a value.

Nowadays we spend a lot of time talking about individual freedom; recently I chatted with a visitor from another country, a businessman, who told me with a chuckle, “You Americans will buy anything with the word ‘freedom’ attached to it.” The underside of freedom is selfishness and the tragedy of the commons. The blessing of the commons comes from the recognition that we are all in this together, that our own individual choices have wide impact, and that we make decisions thinking about others as well as about ourselves.