Wealth and Want
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Enough to Go Around

Peter Barnes: Capitalism 3.0: Preface (pages ix.-xvi)

I began pondering this dilemma about ten years ago after retiring from Working Assets, a business I cofounded in 1982. (Working Assets offers telephone and credit card services which automatically donate to nonprofit groups working for a better world.) My initial ruminations focused on climate change caused by human emissions of heat-trapping gases. Some analysts saw this as a “tragedy of the commons,” a concept popularized forty years ago by biologist Garrett Hardin. According to Hardin, people will always overuse a commons because it’s in their self-interest to do so. I saw the problem instead as a pair of tragedies: first a tragedy of the market, which has no way of curbing its own excesses, and second a tragedy of government, which fails to protect the atmosphere because polluting corporations are powerful and future generations don’t vote.

This way of viewing the situation led to a hypothesis: if the commons is a victim of market and government failures, rather than the cause of its own destruction, the remedy might lie in strengthening the commons. But how might that be done? According to prevailing wisdom, commons are inherently difficult to manage because no one effectively owns them. If Waste Management Inc. owned the atmosphere, it would charge dumpers a fee, just as it does for terrestrial landfills. But since no one has title to the atmosphere, dumping proceeds without limit or cost.

There’s a reason, of course, why no one has title to the atmosphere. For as long as anyone can remember there’s been more than enough air to go around, and thus no point in owning any of it. But nowadays, things are different. Our spacious skies aren’t empty anymore. We’ve filled them with invisible gases that are altering the climate patterns to which we and other species have adapted. In this new context, the atmosphere is a scarce resource, and having someone own it might not be a bad idea.

In retrospect, I realized the question I’d been asking since early adulthood was: Is capitalism a brilliant solution to the problem of scarcity, or is it itself modernity’s central problem? The question has many layers, but explorations of each layer led me to the same verdict. Although capitalism started as a brilliant solution, it has become the central problem of our day. It was right for its time, but times have changed.

When capitalism started, nature was abundant and capital was scarce; it thus made sense to reward capital above all else. Today we’re awash in capital and literally running out of nature. We’re also losing many social arrangements that bind us together as communities and enrich our lives in nonmonetary ways. This doesn’t mean capitalism is doomed or useless, but it does mean we have to modify it. We have to adapt it to the twenty-first century rather than the eighteenth. ... read the whole chapter



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Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone hasn't yet led to a society in which all can prosper