A new capitalism.

AuthorBarnes, Peter
PositionESSAY - Viewpoint essay

I'm a businessman. I believe society should reward successful initiative with profit. At the same time, I know that profit-seeking activities have unhealthy side effects. They cause pollution, waste, inequality, anxiety, and confusion about the purpose of life.

I'm also a liberal, in the sense that I'm not averse to a role for government in society. Yet history has convinced me that representative government can't adequately protect the interests of ordinary citizens. Even less can it protect the interests of future generations, ecosystems, and nonhuman species--because most (though not all) of the time, government puts the interests of private corporations first. This is a systemic problem, not just a matter of electing new leaders.

If capitalism as we know it is deeply flawed, and government is no savior, where lies hope? The Right says that government is flawed and that only privatization, deregulation, and tax cuts can save us. The Left insists that markets are flawed and that only government can save us. The trouble is that both sides are right--that markets and state are flawed--and wrong--that salvation lies in either sphere. But if that's the case, what are we to do? Is there, perhaps, a missing set of institutions that can help us?

I think there is. They lie in the realm of common wealth.

Everyone knows what private wealth is: property we inherit or accumulate individually. In the United States, the top 5 percent of Americans owns more of this treasure than the bottom 95 percent.

Less well known is our common wealth. Each of us is the joint recipient of a vast inheritance that includes air and water, habitats and ecosystems, languages and cultures, science and technologies, social and political systems, and quite a bit more.

Common wealth is like the dark matter of the economic universe--it's everywhere, but we don't see it. Yet the value of this common wealth is immense. Though most of it isn't priced in markets, economists like Robert Costanza have calculated that it's worth more than all private wealth combined. In other words, most of what we cherish, we share.

It's time to notice our shared gifts. Not only that, it's time to name, protect, and organize them. The practical question is how.


As our economic system evolved, two parallel threads emerged: the ascent of private corporations and the decline of the commons.

In the beginning, the commons was everywhere. Humans and other animals roamed around it, hunting and gathering. Like other species, we had territories, but these were tribal, not individual. About 10,000 years ago, human agriculture and permanent settlements arose, and with...

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