Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Common Wealth Trusts"
More than any other writer, Peter Barnes has been keeping the idea in front of the public of how to protect the commons through new and creative ownership rights. It has been a pleasure to watch how his thinking has evolved over time.
The mechanism he suggests—a trust, holding common assets for the benefit of future generations—is powerful and simple. Trusts are likely well known only to persons of wealth; it is worth noting that they are how wealthy families protect assets for their own future generations and, as such, are instruments that are sturdy and have a long tradition to call upon in the law. To take this tool and turn it to our own uses—uses that promote the public good—is a stroke of genius. Property rights are the most well-defended part of our legal system. It is territory that the Left rarely thinks to claim as its own, and Barnes is wise to do so. In so doing, he stakes our claim to the high ground long occupied by the financial elite.
I appreciate the point that these trusts give future generations “representation in our economic system,” which is easier than giving them representation in our political system. Many of us think of ownership as a fact and fail to recognize that it has a design. Currently, representation in our economic system is reserved for the elite who own substantial assets; the more stock you hold, the more votes you have inside a corporation, for example. But it need not be so. Barnes envisions trusts in which we all would be represented—and so would future generations. Recognizing that we can redesign something as fundamental as asset ownership is powerful territory for transformation. We all can benefit from becoming more conversant at this design table.
Why are property rights so important? History and analysis here would help. I would invite Barnes to speak in more sweeping language, about entering a new age. Property is foundational to every economy—from family ownership of farms in the Age of Agriculture, to the wealth of robber barons in the Industrial Age, to the wealth of the 1% in the Age of Finance, where we now find ourselves.
One age builds upon the last. We do not go back, but carry forward the former ages in new ways. In the Industrial Age, we industrialized agriculture. In the Age of Finance, we financialized industry. As we move into a more ecologically sensitive era, we will need to ecologize finance. And we will need to socialize it—make it more inclusive, less elite. Barnes is showing one powerful way to do both.
Redesigning the social architectures of our economy is a vital part of transformationmdash;as vital as redesigning the physical architectures of our energy and product system. Barnes is a foremost architect in this important work.
I have one quibble with the piece, however. Barnes speaks as though common wealth trusts will be the one property/ownership design counterbalancing corporations. My sense is we are instead entering an era with a multiplicity of ownership designs—a time of biodiversity in social architecture, beyond the monoculture of the corporate form. Barnes references my work, mentioning worker-owned businesses, wind guilds, cooperatives of all kinds, and so on. But he does not integrate these other forms of broad-based ownership into his vision of the future. Instead, his diagram (and analysis) shows two institutions—trusts and corporations—with government balancing the two. I think instead we will see a multiplicity of models. By drawing the boundary of “acceptable” models more broadly, he could position his work/theory inside a larger landscape, showing himself a natural ally of many other players seeking economic transformation.