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September 25, 2005

From Divine Right to Birthrights

Monopoly games as a model for society: everyone starts at the same spot and gains $200 for passing Go. We need laws by which commons trump capital.

Marjorie Kelly has written a brilliant book called The Divine Right of Capital. By “divine,” of course, she doesn’t mean God-given. What she means is that, under current laws and treaties, the rights of capital in America trump everything else. The rights of workers, communities, nature and future generations — all are subordinate to capital’s prerogative to maximize short-term gain.

Now, the question of who gets the top right in any society is always an interesting one. As on a highway, someone has to be “king of the road.” But who? Invariably, those who hold the divine right in any era say they’re the only conceivable top dogs. Kings said it 300 years ago; capital owners say it today. They hire priests and economists to add moral or pseudo-scientific credence to their claims. The truth is, though, that society chooses the divine right holder, and we can change our minds if we wish.

It seems to me that, if anything is divine, it should be those things we inherit together and must pass on, undiminished, to future generations. Protection of these shared assets should trump transient private gain. Broad benefit should trump narrow benefit. The commons should trump capital. And this should be written into law.

Let me suggest an historical perspective here. It makes sense that, during the past 300 years or so, capital held the divine right. Goods and services were scarce; nature was abundant. But now the see-saw has tipped. Today the problem in advanced economies isn’t the scarcity of goods and services, or of capital. It’s the scarcity of nature, equity, time and quiet. So it makes historic sense that we shift the divine right to the commons.

At the moment, there’s one American law that gives precedence to the commons: the Endangered Species Act, which says a species’ right to survive trumps capital’s right to short-term gain. The trouble is, the law comes into play only when a species has been so devastated it’s on the brink of extinction. We need rights and protective mechanisms that kick in long before then.

The democratic counterpart of divine right is the notion of birthrights. As our Declaration of Independence put it, “all men … are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” foremost among which are “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The Constitution put meat on these elegant bones, guaranteeing such basic rights as free speech, due process, habeus corpus, speedy public trials, secure homes and property, and more. These rights adhere to people simply because they’re born in America.

Wisely, the Ninth Amendment affirmed that “the enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” In that spirit, many more have since been added.

If we were to analyze the growth of American birthrights, we’d see a series of waves. The first wave consisted of rights against the state. The second included rights against discrimination based on race, nationality, gender or sexual orientation. The third wave — which, historically speaking, is just beginning — consists of rights not against things, but for things. These might be thought of as rights to pursue happiness. Among those already established are the rights to receive free public education, bargain collectively for wages and be financially secure in old age. Where the third wave goes from here is of course speculative. My bet is it will embrace the rights to decent health care throughout life, to a certain amount of start-up capital at the beginning of adulthood, and to an equal share of income from common wealth. Let me briefly expand on the last two.

The board game Monopoly is a quintessential simulacrum of capitalism: players compete against each other to acquire property, build monopolies and collect rent. But the board game has two features — birthrights, really — currently lacking in American capitalism: all players start with the same amount of capital, and all receive $200 each time they circle the board. Absent these features, the game would egregiously lack fairness and excitement.

Imagine, for example, what would happen if the game started with one player owning half the property and 19 other players splitting up the rest. It’s safe to say the initially dominant player would quickly win almost every game, and the other players would have no fun at all.

Now recall the current distribution of private property in America today: the top five percent owns more than the remaining 95 percent combined — just as in our imaginary Monopoly game. Little wonder capitalism is more fun for the top five percent and their offspring than for everyone else. But what if everyone received, not an equal amount of start-up capital, but enough to play a strong game — enough, say, to choose among several decent opportunities? That would help capitalism produce a lot more happiness.

The practical question, of course, is where might such start-up capital come from. Yale professors Bruce Ackerman and Anne Alstott have suggested it could come from an annual tax on private wealth. An alternative would be to take it out of our common wealth, assuming some of that wealth could be turned into dividend-paying assets (e.g. by making polluters pay). The latter approach would advance not just the birthrights of American citizens, but also the divine right of nature.