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28 December 2022

A Speculative Solution to the Problem of Capital and Ownership

I have long advocated for employee control and ownership of the means of production. This was really at the core of what Marx imagined communism would be, even though he never really fleshed it out. (See the New Belgium Brewing Company, Publix, Taylor Guitars, and the W. W. Norton & Company for contemporary variations on such a model.) A practical problem, though, when aiming toward this end is, How do we encourage economic development while turning companies over to the ones who actually create value through their labor? In capitalism, investment happens because individuals with wealth see an opportunity to expand their wealth, but how would this work for laborers who have very little wealth and often only their own labor to sell?

One could imagine government stepping in as the financer in such a new system, lending money to a collection of workers, but this seems politically untenable, at least in the short term. I think copyright law might offer a surprising solution. The Founders established copyright in the US as a compromise to encourage and reward creativity. An author would have a set time time to profit from their creation after which the work would be turned over to the public domain. 28 years, they surmised, should be more than enough time for authors to profit from their work, and then the public would be able to elaborate from there. The relatively short copyright period encourages creativity (with the promise of a brief monopoly) while the eternal public-domain period discourages stagnation (with the promise of collective ownership). What if, like copyright, we limited the time that those who gave the startup capital for a business were allowed to profit from their investment after which the business would be turned over to its workers? It wouldn't even necesarily need to happen all at once. I could imagine a system that gradually shifted the profits and control from owners to workers. I think it's worth considering.

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