Peter Barnes made a name for himself as cofounder of Working Assets, a business that offers telephone and credit card services and also contributes a portion of its receipts to nonprofit groups “working for a better world.” Barnes supports private enterprise and large corporations, yet he nonetheless views capitalism as “the central problem of our day” and much in need of major reform.
According to Barnes, capitalism originated as a means of helping people address basic needs in a world of scarcity. It eventually evolved into Capitalism 2.0 to deal with a world of excess production in which advertisers pushed consumers to buy things they didn’t need. The time has come, Barnes says, for a third version — Capitalism 3.0, which would respond to a world in which we are “literally running out of nature” and “losing social arrangements that bind us together as communities and enrich our lives in nonmonetary ways.”
The edition of capitalism that Barnes proposes would create new institutions that counter or offset the negative sides of corporations. These institutions, owned by citizens collectively, would hold private property rights in common assets — the air, water, wildlife, and ecosystems generally — and possess legal power to protect the public’s interests in them. Barnes’s hope is that government, in one of the rare moments in which good people take charge, would create these new commons institutions and vest them with secure property rights — rights that unsupportive politicians could not later revoke. Trustees would run the institutions in accordance with clear guidelines for ecological protection while citizen-beneficiaries would have legal standing to insist that the guidelines be followed.
Barnes is persuasive in his hard-hitting critiques of corporations and corporate-dominated governance. One wonders, though, whether his ecosystem trusts would truly remain free from them — a difficulty he notes but downplays. Trust beneficiaries, like citizens today, would likely want healthy landscapes balanced with good jobs and economic growth, so we can anticipate sharp debate over the best ways to use common resources within the overall ecological guidelines. Other problems also lurk. Can we really distinguish, as Barnes assumes, between property that’s legitimately private and property that’s common, given ecological interconnections? Don’t we need, for the trusts to work, a clearer line between using nature and abusing it?
Challenges aside, Barnes’s call for radical change is timely and provocative. Corporations wield too much power today, over government and over the natural systems upon which all life depends. They promote economic inequality and ultimately fail to produce happiness. We need new ideas, and Barnes’s are worth considering.