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“Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations as boni patres familias [good heads of the household].”Karl Marx
Our common wealth — the shared bounty that we inherit and create together — precedes and surrounds our private wealth. By building a system that protects and expands our common wealth rather than one that exploits it, we can address both our ecological and social imbalances.
The concept of the commons dates back to Roman times, with emperor Justinian (530 AD) declaring, “By the law of nature these things are common to mankind: the air, running water, the sea, and consequently the shores of the sea.” The Magna Carta (1215) established forests and fisheries as commons open to all. John Locke (1689) declared that private property is appropriate only if “there is enough, and as good, left in common for others.”
In pre-capitalist times, shared commons were the source of sustenance for most people. Though corporations have enclosed and diminished much of the commons, it lives on in three portfolios: natural wealth (air, water, seeds, ecosystems, other species); community wealth (streets, parks, the Internet, money, social insurance); and cultural wealth (music, art, science, open-source software). All of these are gifts we share and are obliged to preserve for others and for future generations.
The trouble is that, under capitalism, common wealth is increasingly appropriated by private corporations and wealthy individuals for profit. To counter this, we need to expand and strengthen both the commons and the institutions that sustain them.
Several doctrines flow from the idea of the commons:
Public trust doctrine: The state must act as the trustee of common wealth for the benefit of all, or designate accountable trustees.
We’re all in this together: The capitalist-era risks of unemployment, disability, illness, climate change and unfunded retirement are best shared collectively rather than borne individually.
Polluter pays: Polluters should pay to dump wastes in shared ecosystems.
Precautionary principle: Ecosystems should be managed for long-term health, not short-term profit.
One person, one share: Rent from common assets belongs to everyone equally.
Usufruct: Our right to make use of a given resource is contingent upon our responsibility to preserve and enrich that resource for future generations.
It’s important to note that, though the commons sector needs state support (just as the private sector does), it’s not identical to the state. One can imagine a vibrant commons sector built around the Internet and the airwaves; trusts that protect key essential resources like clean air, water, forests and topsoil; universal health care; dividends paid from common wealth to everyone and local arts funds based on copyright fees. One can also imagine fees on private transactions that profit from the financial commons.
An important function of the commons sector would be to charge corporations for costs (such as bank bailouts and pollution) that they currently impose on the rest of us. If this were done, businesses would speculate less and invest more in clean technologies, and rent from commons use could provide non-labor income to all.
In short, a twenty-first-century commons sector wouldn’t replace the market or the state, but would rather serve as a necessary balance to them. While such a sector won’t emerge all at once, we can build it piece by piece over time.
MOST FAMOUS APPLICATION: Parks and wilderness areas, the Internet, Wikipedia, Social Security, the Alaska Permanent Fund (pays equal dividends to all Alaskans with revenue from oil leases).
MOST INFAMOUS BETRAYAL: Free gifts of air to polluters, money to banks and airwaves to broadcasters.