The Future of the Commons
The market needs a counterpoise with a different calculus.The ideal counterpoise isn't the state. It's the commons.
THE 21st CENTURY
The 21st century can't be a continuation of the 20th. We're too close to too many edges for that.
In the 20th century, the market triumphed over all. It defeated communism, levelled national boundaries to trade and brought material abundance never seen before. But the market's triumph was accompanied by huge unpaid costs : bills that are now coming due. Of these, the most momentous are those owed to nature and the poor.
The 21st century must not only pay these bills. It must, at the same
time, solve two systemic problems: How can we share a crowded
planet with billions of other humans, other species and ecosystems?
And how can we improve the quality of life for rich and poor alike?
The unbridled market can't solve these problems alone. It needs a
counterpoise with a different calculus. The ideal counterpoise isn't, as
many thought in the 20th century, the state. It's the commons.
Government's job in the 21st century is to restore the balance between
the commons and the market that grew so distorted in the 20th century.
This can be done without raising taxes or expanding bureaucracy.
What might America look like with a healthy balance between
commons and market? Here are some glimpses:
- A market sector that pays its way
Polluters and other commons users pay for usage rights. Pollution,
advertising and congestion are reduced. More money flows to common
purposes, without higher taxes.
- A stronger democracy
Spectrum fees cover most electoral campaign costs. Fewer elected
officials are indentured to monied interests
A great change in the stewardship of the Earth
is required if vast human misery is to be avoided
and our home on this planet is not to be
Statement of scientists from 70 countries, including
102 Nobel laureates (1992)
- A culture of popular participation
An open Internet hosts diverse commons and provides access to
other media. There are shorter copyrights and new legal vehicles for
sharing creativity. Funding flows to the arts, non-commercial radio
- Science in the public interest
University research focuses on common needs. Most discoveries
remain in the public domain.
- Every baby a trust fund baby
Everyone receives, as a birthright, a cash inheritance and yearly dividends.
This income comes from rent charged for use of scarce common
assets. The commons thus becomes a source of sustenance for all, as
it was in pre-industrial days.
Restoring a commons/market balance isn't a utopian dream. It's a
necessary and doable task. Nature and our ancestors have already done
the hard work : they created most of the wealth we simply inherited.
All that's missing - all we need to build - are appropriate legal and
institutional protections for that wealth.
The real utopians are those who believe the market can continue unbridled
forever. This dream has great allure, but it's a dangerous fantasy. The
reality is that, without a healthy commons, the market (and much else)
won't survive the 21st century.
This report has focused on poorly managed commons. But America
abounds with commons that work well. The examples below can serve
as models for the larger common sector we need to build.
- Public libraries let anyone sit, read, borrow books and access the
Internet for free.
- Blood banks, academic disciplines and many civic organizations are
communities of shared purpose. Members of such communities
(sometimes called gift economies) freely give their time and creativity
to the commons and reap benefits in return.
- The Internet and World Wide Web spread like wildfire because
their protocols and languages are free for all to use.
- Sidewalks are marvels of common use. With a minimum of law
enforcement and maintenance, they foster mobility, commerce and
- Parks in cities are islands of quiet and play. Typically they are fenced
but free and open to all. Some sporting fields require reservations.
Others have informal rules such as 'winners stay, losers sit.'
- National parks and wilderness areas protect habitat and provide
millions of Americans a direct experience of nature.
- Wildlife populations are managed partly through hunting and fishing
licenses, which limit human killing and raise revenue for conservation.
Sales of federal duck stamps, for example, have helped preserve 5
million acres of waterfowl habitat.
- State land trusts have been around since 1787, when Congress
required western territories to set aside land for 'common schools.'
Today over 150 million acres are held in trust by states. Much of this is
leased for timber, grazing or oil production, with revenues going to
- The Texas Permanent School Fund owns submerged lands along
the Gulf Coast. Proceeds from offshore oil and gas leases launched the
Fund in 1954. Earnings from investments go to local schools.
- The Alaska Permanent Fund is like a communal savings account for
all Alaskans. Initial capital came from oil leases on state land. Today a
$23 billion diversified portfolio pays every Alaskan a yearly dividend.
Last year's was $1,54
Public libraries let anyone sit, read, borrow books and
access the Internet for free.
Community gardens are springing up in urban areas
around the nation, often on vacant land that had been
considered without value.
The Edwards Aquifer was more than a million
years in the making. Our mission is to protect it
for another million years.
: Edwards Aquifer Authority
- Agricultural land trusts buy conservation easements from farmers using private and public funds. Farmers continue to own and operate their farms, while trust-owned easements preserve the shared landscape and the farm economy.
- Community gardens rejuvenate neighborhoods and enable landless
city-dwellers to enjoy the fruits of gardening.
- The Nature Conservancy and Trust for Public Land are private
trusts that have acquired and protected millions of acres from
- Soil conservation districts were created throughout America after the
Dust Bowl. They help landowners conserve soil, water and wetlands.
- Air quality districts were formed in California and elsewhere in
response to smog. Some now issue tradeable pollution permits.
- The Oregon Water Trust acquires water rights and uses them to
augment flows of rivers and streams.
- The Edwards Aquifer Authority caps withdrawals of underground
water and sells tradeable withdrawal permits.
- Seed banks preserve the diversity of plant species by keeping seeds
and regularly re-growing them.
- Open source software is licensed software (such as Linux) that
anyone can read, modify and redistribute. Because the code is shared
in a commons, bugs are fixed and improvements made more rapidly
than in most proprietary software.
- Creative Commons is an on-line licensing service that enables
creators to share their work without fear that someone will re-use it for
- Time Dollars are a currency that helps build community. Help a
neighbor for an hour and you get credit in a computer bank that you
can use when you need help yourself.
- The Music Performance Trust Fund was formed in 1948 by the
recording industry and the musicians' union. A small percentage of record
sales goes into a fund that pays for free concerts in schools, parks and
hospitals. Sales of corporate products thus support living culture.
The audit committee's main findings are:
1) The wealth we inherit together is badly managed. Many commons
are not even recognized as commons and therefore have no legal
or institutional protection.
2) To protect the planet and assure a decent quality of life for all
Americans, we must restore a proper balance between the commons
and the market.
We recommend a number of parallel ways forward:
- Strengthen common property rights
Common wealth needs legal rights. These rights should be equal to,
and sometimes superior to, those of private wealth. They should be
assigned to airsheds, watersheds, aquifers and other ecosystems
pressured by markets.
- Overhaul management
In theory, government is the trustee for our common assets. In reality,
government in the U.S. has largely abandoned this role. It's time to
appoint new trustees.
The new trustees can be quasi-public entities like air quality districts
and the Alaska Permanent Fund, or non-profit entities like pension
funds and land trusts. The main requirements are: trustees must be
legally accountable to beneficiaries, beneficiaries must be broad
classes of citizens (including future generations), and resource flows
must be fully transperant.
- Make polluters and broadcasters pay
Polluting the commons can no longer be free. Someone : either
polluters or pollutees : must pay for it. The best solution is to make
polluters pay into trusts that use the revenue for common purposes
Broadcasters aren't polluters, but they've been using a common asset
rent-free, and want to sell it for a profit. That should be stopped.
- Pay dividends to owners
Because of the skewed distribution of private wealth, a small self perpetuating minority receives a disproportionate share of America's
non-labor income. To offset this structural inequity, some income from
common assets should be distributed on a one-person, one-share basis.
- Nurture non-corporate culture and the public domain
Copyright terms should be shortened and patents should be issued
more stringently. Internet sharing of information and creativity should
be encouraged. New funding flows for artists, live performances and
independent films should be created.
- Make protecting the commons an organizing principle for the
The boundaries between the market and the commons have shifted
too far toward the market. Starting now, all sectors of society need to
push those boundaries back toward the commons. Thus:
Religious leaders should remind us often that the sacred gifts of
creation belong to everyone and must be cherished and preserved.
Industry leaders should support capping and paying for pollution.
Media and entertainment companies should replenish the cultural
commons that enriches them.
Political leaders should stop giving away common assets to private
Courts should reinvigorate the public trust doctrine, the riparian
principle and our rights as common owners.
Economists should recognize the commons' role in meeting human
needs and making the economic engine run right.
Artists should develop new distribution systems that benefit both
themselves and the cultural commons.
Educators should include the commons in their curricula and involve
students in local commons.
Universities : themselves part of the commons : should focus their
research on shared needs, not private gain.
Creative thinkers from many fields should flesh out the details of what a large common sector would look like.
We are richer than we think. But we're leaving our children poorer.
All Americans are joint owners of a trove of hidden assets. These assets : natural gifts like air and water, and social creations like science and the Internet : constitute our shared inheritance. They're vital to our lives and make our economy run. Though it's impossible to put a precise value on them, it's safe to say they're worth trillions of dollars. The trouble is, our shared inheritance is being grossly mismanaged. Maintenance is terrible, theft is rampant and rents often aren't being collected. To put it bluntly, our common wealth: and our children's: is being squandered.