Can property law be used to reclaim our common wealth and transform capitalism in the process? Peter Barnes, a socially minded entrepreneur and commoner, believes it can. He has just published a brilliant new book, Ours: The Case for Universal Property that explains how a new class of property rights and trusts can help protect common assets and generate revenues for everyone in the process. You can hear Barnes explain his ideas in my latest podcast episode (#19) of Frontiers of Commoning.Frontiers of Commoning.
The book Ours amounts to a capstone of twenty years of Peter’s thinking – and I should know: Peter and I were close colleagues twenty years ago in the start up of the Tomales Bay Institute, later renamed On the Commons. Together with journalist and policy expert Jonathan Rowe, we set out to develop a new, activist-minded discourse about the commons. From different perspectives, each of us shared a deep concern about reckless enclosures of shared wealth and sought to develop novel ways to protect the commons.
Peter’s inquiries into this topic had begun years earlier with research into protecting land. In 2001, he took a new direction with his book Who Owns the Sky?, which offered one of the most serious and coherent early proposals for dealing with climate change. He proposed the Sky Trust, a new nongovernmental institution to set limits on carbon emissions and charge polluters for the right to emit carbon into the atmosphere.
The Sky Trust would manage the funds collected, which in turn would generate dividends to be paid to every citizen equally. The premise is that we collectively own the atmosphere as a commons, and so should have some reliable means to protect it and benefit from it. Under Barnes’ elegant proposal, market forces would deter carbon emissions (by making polluters pay) while directing those revenues to all citizens. This would both help reduce inequality and incentivize lower carbon usage.