Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Balance Between the Market and the Commons

For the past month, I have been discussing in this blog the impact of Citizens United on American politics.  The voice of big money now shouting over the whisper of the people has decidedly tipped the balance of power almost entirely toward business and away from the people.  Underlying the struggle of “government by and for the corporation” versus “government by and for the people” boils the intense battle between the market and the commons.

The economy as a whole is divided between these two forces—market and commons.  The great commons, of course, is the planet.  Within that great commons live thousands of smaller commons like air, water, forests, food plants, roads and parks, ideas and language.  The commons is made up of all the stuff no one owns privately, but we all share together.  Peter Barnes, an entrepreneur and environmentalist, defined the commons “as the sum of all we inherit together and must pass on, undiminished and more or less equally, to our heirs, …includ[ing] non-human as well as human heirs.”

The commons is like a great lake, and in this lake swim the corporations and the markets.  Like fish, producers take resources from the lake, digest them into products, sell them off to consumers, and excrete their waste back into the lake or the commons.  “With one hand the market takes good stuff from the commons; with the other hand it dumps bad stuff into the commons,” says Barnes.

In this process, going on now for 300 years, the market has gotten all the benefit from the treasury of planet earth, and then used her as its waste sink, while selling off its products to profit investors and owners.  The commons, on the other hand, has been robbed of its wealth and become overloaded with industrial pollution, plastic, tires, and land fills.

With Citizens United, corporations are now officially “persons” with the rights and freedoms of human citizens.  But doesn’t it make sense that if corporations have the rights of personhood, then so should the commons?  The watershed should have rights.  The atmosphere should.  The sun and energy should.  Ecosystems too.  While it’s not likely the supreme court will grant such rights to all our commons, there are ways individuals and groups are trying to protect the commons from the extractive market and regain some semblance of balance between these two critical players in our economic and social lives.

For the past fifty years, a commons movement has been growing in the States.  People are talking about and figuring out ways to manage the commons through developing Trusts.  Public Trust Doctrine already exists in some states, including Wisconsin. It holds “that natural resources belong to the people rather than the state, and that the state’s job is to act as trustee of these resources for the people and future generations.”  A trust takes a manager or trustee to steward the inheritance for the good of the beneficiaries.  The manager of the trust tries not to reduce the principal, but yet pay out dividends to the beneficiaries on a regular basis. 

Commons Trusts are already in play in such places as Oregon, where the Oregon Water Trust acquires previously allocated water rights and uses them to augment flows of rivers and streams.  I’ll give you more examples in future blogs of how the commons is standing up to the market and trying to restore balance between the two.

In the meantime, you might be interested in reading the entire Peter Barnes paper, “Capitalism, The Commons and Divine Right,” at

Also, explore the excellent website On The Commons

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