Case for Universal Property

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* Book: Ours: The Case for Universal Property. Peter Barnes.


" a brilliant new bookthat explains how a new class of property rights and trusts can help protect common assets and generate revenues for everyone in the process".


David Bollier:

"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.


The book Ours amounts to a capstone of twenty years of Peter’s thinking


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.

In later books — Capitalism 3.0 (2006) and With Liberty and Dividends for All (2014) – Barnes further developed this idea of stakeholder trusts for a wide variety of common assets. Again, the model was to use charge rent to limit the use of scarce common assets, and then use that pool of money to pay dividends to everyone.

Barnes’ ideas later gained some traction in Congress as “cap-and-dividend” legislation, in part because they had the virtue of being specific, practical, and fostering greater equality. (The Sky Trust would provide a predistribution of benefits from common assets owned by everyone, rather than rely on redistribution by the welfare state, which is routinely criticized by free-market defenders.)


Now, in Barnes’ latest book, Ours, he takes his analysis to a richer, more developed level. He argues for inventing a broad new class of property rights known as “universal property.” Its premise is that most of today’s wealth is co-inherited from nature and past human efforts, not individually earned.

Why should politically connected corporations and lucky individuals reap the lion’s share of benefits from public lands, watersheds and the atmosphere? Why should all of us pay for civic infrastructures like our financial and communications systems even though most of the benefits are privately captured?

If some of this wealth were placed in a trust for all citizens and future generations, it would introduce a new set of institutions that could tame two serious structural flaws in contemporary capitalism – its destruction of nature and concentration of wealth among the few. The lever for this shift would be a new class of universal property rights for common assets such as the atmosphere and ecosystems, for example, which are not protected by property rights. As a result (along with government inaction), industries are able to over-exploit them as “free” resources, with little or no economic penalty.

Universal property aims to correct this problem by making businesses respect nature’s limits and pay for its resources, while generating new flows of non-labor income for all citizens."



Peter Barnes:

From Chapter 1: What is Universal Property?

"CAPITALISM as we know it has two egregious flaws: it relentlessly widens inequality and destroys nature. Its ‘invisiblehand’, which is supposed to transform individual self-seeking into widely shared well- being, too often doesn’t, and governments can’t keep up with the consequences. For billions of people around the world, the challenge of our era is to repair or replace capitalism before its cumulative harms become irreparable. But how, quite practically, can either of those things be done, without sacrificing the benefits of liberty and markets?

This book envisions a transformed market economy in which private property and businesses are complemented by universal property and fiduciary trusts whose beneficiaries are future generations and all living persons equally. The way to build such an economy is to add, gradually but steadily over time, a new class of property rights whose beneficial owners are future generations and all living members of society equally, Economists wrangle over monetary, fiscal and regulatory policies but pay little attention to property rights. Their models all assume that property rights remain just as they are forever. But this needn’t and shouldn’t be the case. My premise is that capitalism’s most grievous flaws are, at root, problems of property rights and must be addressed at that level.

PROPERTY RIGHTS in modern economies are grants by governments of permission to use, lease, sell or bequeath specific assets — and just as importantly, to exclude others from doing those things. The assets involved can be tangible, like land and machinery, or intangible, like shares of stock or songs.

Taken as a whole, property rights are akin to gravity: they curve economic space-time. Their tugs and repulsions are everywhere, and nothing can avoid them. And just as water flows inexorably toward the ocean, so money, goods and power flow inexorably toward property rights. Governments can no more staunch these flows than King Canute could halt the tides.

That said, the most oft-forgotten fact about property rights is that they do not exist in nature; they are constructs of human minds and societies. The assets to which they apply may exist in nature, but the rights of humans to do things with them, or prevent others from doing them, do not. Their design and allocation are entirely up to us.

In this book, I take our existing fabric of property rights as both a given and merely the latest iteration in an evolutionary process that has been and will continue to be altered by living humans. Future iterations of the fabric will therefore be a product not only of the past, but also of our imagination and political will in the future. And, while eliminating existing property rights is difficult, adding new ones is less so."


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