by David McCarthy
Quick question: who owns the intellectual property rights to the wheel? How about fire, or for that matter, electricity? What about philosophy, logic, or language itself? The obvious answer is that no one—and everyone—owns these things. They are in the public domain, in legal terms. But at a deeper level they are part of a universal knowledge base that is the common inheritance of all humanity. The explosive productivity gains that came about from the Industrial Revolution, along with all the subsequent developments in technology and communications, are based on this accumulated knowledge and its application. Who ought to receive the economic benefits of this knowledge?
Another quick question: who owns the sky? This question is the title of a book written by Peter Barnes in 2002. The book raises fundamental questions about the disposition of wealth arising from natural resources. Barnes founded the Working Assets phone company, which was a pioneer in diverting corporate profits to worthy causes. He has been working since the 1990s on practical remedies for tough problems like climate change, resource depletion, and basic problems of fairness in our economy.
If any economic issue has caught the imagination of the public lately, it is that of wealth inequality. A 500-page book on the subject (Capital in the 21st Century), written by an obscure French economist (Thomas Pikkety) and filled with statistics, shot to the top of the New York Times hardcover nonfiction best-seller list in May of this year. It’s still on the list, and is expected to sell over 200,000 copies.
The situation we face today is quite a mix: there are the mind-boggling facts on the comparative wealth of the super-rich, the mind-numbing realities of extreme poverty worldwide, the economic decimation of the middle class in developed countries, and a whole generation of young people searching for any kind of opportunity or prospect. Maybe it’s not so surprising that people are thinking about inequality.
Before we dig into the subject, let’s consider a couple of starting points. First, I don’t believe in working toward some sort of forced equality. Not only would that involve a lot of injustice in and of itself, but it is also utterly unfeasible. Individuals are different, circumstances are different, and needs and desires are different. If you believe, as I do, in basic economic freedoms and rights, we need to look to solutions that honor and indeed enhance those rights. Second, we need to look at wealth at a more fundamental level than we usually do, rather than just thinking (albeit correctly), that gross inequality is a bad thing and tossing around ideas for remedies.
If we keep those points in mind, I think it is valid to say that what we could work for—and indeed should work for—is universal sufficiency and opportunity. But how?
|Commons exist throughout the animal kingdom.
One approach, which has a long history of discussion, is based on the idea of the commons. A commons is a resource that is available for use by everyone in a particular society, or society generally. Certain aspects of the natural world have at various times been regarded as a commons. There is also a good argument for regarding at least some parts of the cultural legacy of human knowledge as a commons. As it stands today, much of the wealth in both of these broad areas is simply appropriated by those who are in a position to exploit it. At least to some degree, it is really unearned income. In a truly just world, there would be a universal share allocated to every individual of basic ownership of the commons. But of course we don’t have such a world. Still, it should be noted that proposals for a universal inheritance have a long history—and they have not come just from utopians, socialists, and the like. Thomas Paine’s proposal in his last work Agrarian Justice, written in 1797, is an outstanding early example. More recently we have the proposals of Peter Barnes, who advocates collecting carbon taxes that would be paid out as dividends to every U.S. citizen.
It is comparatively easy to argue for the universal allocation of wealth in these ways. Wise souls will see the justice in it. But what about the political obstacles and battles needed to make it a reality? Well, let’s just say it’s a tough road to go.
Luckily, there is another route. If you are familiar with my writing, you know that I advocate a system of civil capital endowments, administered by civil society organizations. What this would do, in effect, is to voluntarily create a capital commons, out of which a universal inheritance could come. Though there is certainly an argument to be made for such an inheritance on the basis of justice, it may turn out that the most realistic and expedient argument is one based on compassion and generosity.