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Chapter 9 Building the Commons Sector

Peter Barnes Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

If you dont know where youre going,
you probably wont get there.
Yogi Berra

My sons play a computer game called Sim City. Its a brilliant invention that lets you design, grow, and govern your own virtual metropolis. You plunk down streets, sewers, power systems, and subways. You zone for commerce, industry, and residences. You drop in schools, hospitals, and fire stations. Soon a city comes to life. Its enough to engross kids for hours.

Now imagine an adult game called Sim Commons that lets you design and grow your own virtual economic sector. The object of the game is to produce the most happiness with the least destruction of nature. You plunk down commons trusts, and from simple menus you assign them property rights, ownership regimes, and management algorithms. As you play, the computer displays your happiness and nature scores. Through trial and error, you learn what combinations of moves work best.

In the real world, building a new commons sector will be something like that. While we wait for an historic shift at the national level, we can build and experiment at lower levels. We can test different kinds of trusts, nonprofits, and informal associations, seeing how closely they can hew to commons principles. Then, when history is ready for bigger changes, well be ready too.

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22 Seeds of a Commons Movement

Rowe, Jonathan Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

Every movement requires a story. To claim the future it must first explain the past.

The true story of the commons does this. It explains how we lost the capacity to see our own wealth. It debunks the myth that privatization is always progress. And it shows how growth has become a form of cannibalism in which the market devours the bases of its own existence.

Many of us know this story at some level, but usually it is a story without a name or solution. The commons provides both: it is the commons that is being devoured and the commons that must be restored. What’s more, it is the commons that opens the way to a politics outside the left/right divide.

Some on the right are starting to see that the market isn’t the answer to every problem. Many on the left are coming to the same conclusion about government. So what’s the alternative? An alternative potentially acceptable to both sides is the commons.

If one looks closely, one can see the seeds of a new commons movement germinating. They’re visible in many places, from local land trusts to your laptop to your tabletop. They’re seen in battles against Walmart, patented seeds, and advertising in schools, as well as in open source software, free wi-fi hot spots, farmers’ markets, time banks, and big ideas like the sky trust.

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4 A Parallel Economy

Rowe, Jonathan Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

For two centuries, economists have regarded the commons as a medieval relic. Money is what really counts, and progress follows in the train of it.

Perhaps this was true for a while. At the start of the industrial age, products were scarce and commons abundant. All the economic gears were arranged to produce more stuff. But times change and scarcities shift. Where once the products of the market were scarce, now it is commons that are scarce, and also most needed. For this reason the commons is not a relic. It is a parallel economy that does real work, a counterpoise to the market that provides antidotes to many pathologies of the modern age.

Take quiet, for example. For centuries, noise has been regarded as a byproduct of progress. Today, Americans rate noise as the number-one urban problem. Not crime or trash, but noise.

Quiet is not a mere amenity. People need it for sleep and concentration, both of which are in short supply. One study showed that kids who live in the rear of apartment buildings do better in school than those who live above noisy streets. The market’s answer is drugs for sleeping and concentration—more products for sale, in other words. But does not quiet get better results at less expense? Critics say noise controls are obstacles to the economy. In reality, they are economic measures that meet a real need.

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13 Tollbooths of the Mind

Rowe, Jonathan Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

If one thing is central to the idea of America, it is the ability to breathe freely in the atmosphere of the mind. Thomas Jefferson was the champion of this idea, and he saw that government was not the only threat to it.

“If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property,” Jefferson wrote, “it is the action of the thinking power called an idea.”1 Share money and you have less; share an idea and you still have it, and more.

Benjamin Franklin expressed a similar view when he explained why he didn’t seek patents on his numerous inventions. “As we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others,” he wrote, “we should be glad to serve others by any invention of ours.”2

In this spirit, the Constitution restricted government-bestowed intellectual monopolies—patents and copyrights—to “limited times,” after which writings and inventions would flow back into the public domain that nurtured them. Jefferson practiced what he preached, in this respect at least. Like Franklin, he refused to patent his own inventions because he believed invention to be the property of humankind. As the nation’s first commissioner of patents, he did not grant these monopolies easily. His aim was to enrich the public domain, not the private monopolizers of ideas.

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11 Conservative Commoners, Once

Rowe, Jonathan Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

Few things would shake up American politics as much as clarifying the term conservative. From the daily media one might surmise that conservatives are people who hate taxes and gays and love markets and religion. But the conservative tradition runs deeper than that, and in some ways contrary to it.

Conservatism is, or at least used to be, a way of thinking about society as a whole and the qualities that help maintain it. Edmund Burke, the father of Anglo-Saxon conservatism, believed society is an organic whole—a “community of souls,” as his twentieth-century follower Russell Kirk put it.1

This view of society has large implications. For one thing, it means that people have a duty to support the whole with taxes. “Are all the taxes to be voted grievances?” Burke asked rhetorically, and dismissively, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). For another, it means that humanity must take the long view. Society is a partnership “not only between those who are living,” Burke wrote, “but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”

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