Charter of the Commons

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Guy Standing:

"In the 12th and 13th centuries, civil strife over loss of the commons led to the Charter of the Forest of November 1217, in which commoners’ rights were asserted and reparations assured. Today, we need a new Charter for reviving the commons and for compensating the commoners – you and me – for loss of our commons. In my new book, Plunder of the Commons: A Manifesto for Sharing Public Wealth, a 44-Article Charter of the Commons is presented. Readers will have their own priorities. But what we should demand is that every Party going into the next General Election should present their variant of a Commons Charter.

Articles 43 and 44 of the proposed Charter are crucial. The starting point is that private interests have obtained part of the commons or are using them for pecuniary advantage. As such they owe the commoners compensation. As commoners we are equal, and so the compensation should be equal for all. We might call this the Commons Equality Principle.

What complicates that principle is that the commons belong not just to current generations, but to those who follow us as well. This leads to what is known as the Hartwick Rule of Inter-Generational Equity. Revenue raised from the sale or use of common resources must only be paid out if that does not deplete what is available for future generations. This requires us to distinquish between exhaustible (non-renewable) commons, such as oil and minerals, non-exhaustible (renewable), like land, water, air, skyline and ideas, and replenishable commons, such as forests.

What is proposed is that levies be made on all uses of our commons, with the proceeds used to compensate the commoners, as a matter of social justice. If government were allowed to decide on how the resultant revenue were spent, almost certainly the equality principle would be sacrificed. So, the next step should be the establishment of a Permanent Commons Fund, into which the levies would be placed and reinvested.

With the range of levies potentially available, such a Fund could be built up fairly quickly. Here three derivative rules should apply. The Fund would have to respect the rule that investments would be made only in sphere that did no harm to the commons, or the environment; they should not jeopardise the future commons.

Revenue gained from investment of the levies on exhaustible common resources should be treated as a capital asset, respecting the Hartwick Rule. That means that only the net return should be distributed to today’s commoners. This is the principle that has guided the Norwegian Oil Fund, which has been built up from levies on use of its North Sea oil. Its annual return from investments has exceeded 6%, its net return has been over 4%. So, to maintain the capital, each year it disburses 4% of the Fund. Such has been the Fund’s growth that technically every Norwegian is a millionaire

Third, the Commons Fund could treat levies on non-exhaustible and replenishable commons as revenue for compensating current commoners, because similar revenue could be raised next year and into the future. In short, the Fund could be built up with primary revenue from the levies and secondary revenue from its investments. And 4% of the money from the exhaustible commons combined with, say, 80% of that from non-exhaustible resources and somewhat less from those deemed replenishable (allowing scope for replenishment) could be paid out as Common Dividends to all commoners, equally, as a fundamental economic right.

In effect, what this proposal amounts to is an environmental fiscal policy as well as a route to social justice, involving a shift from taxing income from labour to taxing private wealth and misuse of our commons, and in the process modestly building a new income distribution system based on economic security." (


* Book: Plunder of the Commons: A Manifesto for Sharing Public Wealth. By Guy Standing. Penguin / Pelican Books, 2019