Author's Response to GTI Roundtable "Common Wealth Trusts"

Peter Barnes

I am very grateful for the many thoughtful comments.  Rather than respond to them by author, I will highlight the major concerns expressed and respond to them generically.

Are common wealth trusts a panacea?

Not at all. We need many other institutional innovations. But for the crucially important tasks of administering a sustainability budget and providing income security to everyone, common wealth trusts are the best tools available.

Are common wealth trusts guaranteed to work? Can’t they be corrupted? 

Common wealth trusts are not guaranteed to work perfectly and in all cases, but they will do many jobs we need done better than profit-maximizing corporations and plutocratic government. 

Of course, like any other human institution, they can be corrupted, but our task is to build on the long tradition of trusts’ accountability to beneficiaries to make them as incorruptible as possible. 

Can common wealth trusts be created by citizens acting independently, or is government action—and hence a political movement—required?

Both methods are required. A trust for almost any purpose can be organized under existing law. The challenge is gaining control over a common asset. That requires either government assignment of property rights and/or a lot of money (private or public) to buy them. In either case, a movement is essential.

If government action is required to assign property rights or finance their acquisition, doesn’t the fact that government is dominated by corpor­a­­tions make such action extremely unlikely?

At the moment, yes. But it is possible that, following a major crisis of some sort, corporate domination will temporarily falter. At such a time, there will be an opportunity for non-linear change. We must use that opportunity to create institutions that can stand on their own after the crisis ends and corporate domination of government returns. We need to create such autonomous, accountable institutions because we can’t expect government to be more than briefly free of corporate domination.

What about the relationships between local, regional, national, multinational and global trusts? 

This is a murky area, but generally, the rule of subsidiarity should apply.

How do we think beyond wealth for humans and include the interests of other species?

The short answer is by proxy. When trusts that manage an ecosystem are legally accountable to future generations of humans, that means they are responsible for leaving the ecosystem in as good or better condition for the next human generation as it was when the living generation “inherited” it, with the ultimate goal of making it sustainable indefinitely. “As good or better condition” includes biodiversity. The determination of what that means in terms of human usage limits and restoration would be based on peer-reviewed science. Trustee decisions that fall short of this responsibility (again, using scientific criteria to compare past and present parameters of the ecosystem) could be challenged in court. 

In other words, future generations of humans can serve as a pretty good proxy for non-human species—certainly much better than corporate shareholders, living voters, or wealthy political donors. 

Aren’t common wealth trusts just a “hack” of capitalism that fails to adequately challenge the power of multinational corporations?

I think of common wealth trusts not as a “hack” of capitalism but as evolutionary jiu-jitsu. It is true they leave a lot of power in the hands of corporations, but (a) we need to give those corporations some room to do business, and (b) the trusts would impose boundaries on corporate invasions of the commons, boundaries locked in by property rights.  

The trusts would also create an equal distribution sector of the economy that partially offsets the wealth-concentrating effects of the corporate sector. One can hope that, over time, the boundaries around the commons as well as the size of the equal-distribution sector will grow. 

Wouldn’t it be better to use revenue from common wealth trusts for public and environmental purposes than for dividends?

I am not opposed to using some of the value of common wealth for public purposes, but I would rather do that by taxing dividends than by usurping them. If dividends are taxed as ordinary income, and tax rates remain progressive, the poor will keep most of their dividends while the rich will surrender a higher percentage. Overall, tax revenue in the US would increase by around 25% of the dividends, which our governments could then use as they see fit. 

There is no guarantee, of course, that the tax revenue would be effect­ively spent. But in thinking about this, it is very important to remember that the ecological effectiveness of common wealth trusts rests much more in their boundary-setting power than in the use of their money. 

Finally, let me say that there is much room for further work on the design and implementation of common wealth trusts. What I have tried to do is describe a basic architecture, while recognizing that the devil is in the details. I hope many readers on this list will not only think more about design details, but will contribute to the learning process through real-world experimentation.

Peter Barnes
Peter Barnes is an innovative thinker and entrepreneur whose work has focused on fixing the deep flaws of capitalism. His books include Capitalism 3.0 (2002), Climate Solutions (2008), and With Liberty and Dividends for All: How to Save Our Middle-Class When Jobs Don’t Pay Enough (2014).

Cite as Peter Barnes, author's response to GTI Roundtable "Common Wealth Trusts," Great Transition Initiative (August 2015),

Back to Publication

As an initiative for collectively understanding and shaping the global future, GTI welcomes diverse ideas. Thus, the opinions expressed in our publications do not necessarily reflect the views of GTI or the Tellus Institute.