About the Commons

Author: Carol Schaal

The commons is actually a simple notion, but advocates say it has huge ramifications for how we lead our lives, maintain our communities and organize our society in the years to come. The commons refers to a wealth of valuable assets that are no one’s individual property. Instead, activists say, those resources belong to all of us and should rightfully be used and protected for the benefit of everyone, including future generations.

Although it may sound like a wild new idea, the commons has been part of human civilization for centuries. It’s the central organizing principle of indigenous cultures and peasant communities around the world today, and it still plays a major role in keeping things running throughout modern society.

In this worldview, commons are all around. The sky. Nature. The street in front of your house. Water flowing from your faucet. The language you speak. Family recipes you cook. The public library. Wikipedia. The fire department. Fairy tales. Broadcast airwaves. Open source software. The list goes on and on.

Not everything is a commons, of course. Private property plays an enormous role in our lives. But, say those in the commons movement, large swaths of what should be publicly owned are either being privatized — claimed as someone’s individual possession — or neglected to the point of ruin. The commons is seen as increasingly under threat, with dire consequences for the future.

An example of what commons advocates say we’re losing comes right out of today’s headlines about spiraling health care costs. The creation of many widely prescribed drugs, which millions of people need to survive, was funded in large part by government grants. Thirteen of the 15 new U.S.-developed drugs with sales of more than $1 billion received substantial public funding, according to University of Maryland Professor Gar Alperovitz. But, he says, the exclusive right to sell these pharmaceuticals was handed over to private com¬panies with almost nothing asked in return. That means consumers pay high prices for medicine developed with our tax dollars.

That’s just one reason Notre Dame Professor Leo Burke thinks it’s essential that business majors and MBA candidates learn about the commons along with finance and marketing. A healthy business climate for tomorrow, along with a healthy society and planet, he believes, depend upon recognizing and protecting the value of these things we all share.

How does the idea of the commons translate into standard business practices and public policies? There’s not one clear answer yet from commons advocates. But as the movement gains ground, proposals are emerging. In his classes at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, Burke assigns the book Capitalism 3.0 by entrepreneur Peter Barnes, co-founder of the financial and telecommunications firm Working Assets (now Credo), and later of the commons strategy center On the Commons.
In order to save the commons and the planet, Barnes maintains that we must upgrade the operating system of our economy, just as we would a computer. He believes that alongside private property, we need to foster a new category of ownership using the centuries-old institution of “trusts” — property managed in the interest of certain beneficiaries, which could include all of us. He proposes an interconnected network of public trusts designed to preserve, not destroy, what belongs to all of us.

Here are some of Barnes’ thoughts on what this could look like:

“*A series of ecosystem trusts that protect air, water, forests and habitat;
*A mutual fund that pays dividends to all Americans — one person, one share [modeled on Alaska’s existing Permanent Fund];
*A trust fund that provides start-up capital to every child as he or she reaches adulthood;
*A risk-sharing pool for health care that covers everyone; and
*A national fund based on copyright fees that supports local arts.”

Barnes readily concedes, “Getting from here to there, of course, is the big challenge,” but goes on to note, “with the economic upheaval of the last few years, it’s possible that a window of opportunity has arrived.”