Synergizing Entrepreneurship and a Strong Commons

As a progressive, I continue to be frustrated with the ideological split in our country’s governing bodies that seems to be preventing them from addressing key issues that will help us move forward as a society. But as not a particularly partisan one, I always try to appreciate the positions and underlying world view of more conservative comrades on the other side of our current dysfunctional divide.

So trying to get beyond all this pitched political conflict that has lead to a paralysis of pragmatism (how Spiro Agnew, if you even remember that far back!), I am trying to synthesize something, using components from both sides, that could be a practical path forward. My thinking at the moment revolves around some sort of synergy of entrepreneurship with a strong “commons”. We can continue to be an innovative risk-taking society, but with an overarching belief, as Bill Clinton so eloquently pointed out in his Democratic convention speech, that we are all in this together, rather than “You’re on your own”. The latter I fear will lead to all sorts of bad stuff like competition within a world view of scarcity, economic winners and losers, one dollar (rather than one person) one vote, and increased “us and them” thinking.

So first a quick look at these two concepts: the commons and entrepreneurship.

The Commons

From a definition of “commons” from Wikipedia

Commons are resources that are owned in common or shared among communities. These resources are said to be “held in common” and can include everything from natural resources and common land to software. The commons contains public property and private property, over which people have certain traditional rights…

The commons were traditionally defined as the elements of the environment – forests, atmosphere, rivers, fisheries or grazing land – that are shared, used and enjoyed by all. Today, the commons are also understood within a cultural sphere. These commons include literature, music, arts, design, film, video, television, radio, information, software and sites of heritage. The commons can also include public goods such as public space, public education, health and the infrastructure that allows our society to function…

Institutions like the Internet are defined as “hybrid commons”, because you generally have to pay an Internet service provider to gain access, but once there, you have free access to a world of content and services, many of them free (though some with advertising).

A stronger commons would tend to make money less important, and make life easier and richer for people who do not have a lot of money, because there are more shared venues (like parks, museums, libraries and schools) and services (like health care and education) that are paid or mostly paid for by the collective purse. By the same token, that strong commons, particularly in a high-technology society like our own, involves people paying more taxes to maintain those shared resources.

I think conservatives in particular often argue against a strong commons because they feel that it facilitates human laziness, based on that persistent Calvinist belief in inherent human depravity. As the line of thinking goes, having to work for and pay for everything we get forces us to rise above that nature and become better people (that is strive to be winners rather than losers). Increasing what is shared in common, rather than packaged as a commodity at a price, dials down (at least a notch or two) the need for money, lessening our need to struggle for a strong economic position.


From the Wikipedia article on “entrepreneurship”

Entrepreneurship is the act of being an entrepreneur or “one who undertakes innovations, finance and business acumen in an effort to transform innovations into economic goods”. This may result in new organizations or may be part of revitalizing mature organizations in response to a perceived opportunity. The most obvious form of entrepreneurship is that of starting new businesses (referred as Startup Company); however, in recent years, the term has been extended to include social and political forms of entrepreneurial activity.

In more recent times, the term entrepreneurship has been extended to include elements not related necessarily to business formation activity such as conceptualizations of entrepreneurship as a specific mindset (see also entrepreneurial mindset) resulting in entrepreneurial initiatives e.g. in the form of social entrepreneurship, political entrepreneurship, or knowledge entrepreneurship have emerged.

Important to note here that entrepreneurship has traditionally been framed around making money for oneself (and partners) by offering some new good or service, or a new take on an existing good or service (at say a higher quality or lower price). This can include various acts of commoditizing or monetizing bits of the “commons”, like cutting down the mature trees in a forest to sell them for lumber, plowing wild prairies for farmland to grow food, or worst case, as Joni Mitchell sang back in the 1960s, paving paradise and putting up a parking lot.

America was built (for better or worse) by leveraging the vision of entrepreneurs. Benjamin Franklin was a visionary inventor and administrator (he was America’s first postmaster) from Colonial times who is still pretty universally well thought of today. Entrepreneurs from the Industrial Age of the 19th century are more of a mixed bag, known (depending on how you view them) as either innovators or robber barons. Andrew Carnegie building mills to make steel to build our modern cities and railroads. John D. Rockefeller selling petroleum products to power those trains. Henry Ford innovating the mass production of automobiles. Thomas Edison inventing the phonograph and motion picture camera, and bringing the electric light to practical mass availability. More recently we have people like Steve Jobs of Apple and Bill Gates of Microsoft, making computer technology accessible and affordable to many individuals as Henry Ford did with the automobile a century earlier.

As a side note… it is interesting that I struggle to find a female person to put on that list of iconic American entrepreneurs, it is such a male-identified role!

Read these men’s stories and they are tales of vision, but also in many cases exploitation of the commons and/or the labor and ideas of others. But they are icons of the kind of American “can do” spirit that many people still resonate with and fear (rightly or wrongly) being destroyed by political progressivism and a more regulated and managed capitalism.

American conservatives regularly champion the entrepreneur, arguing that we need to minimize government regulation and control of economic activity to unleash the full power of entrepreneurship. American progressives (other than say some doctrinaire socialists) generally support entrepreneurship as well, but hedge to some degree with concerns about diminishing the commons (including environmental degradation and privatization of public space), economic disparity, the rights of labor, and concerns about economic power leading to inordinate political power.

Synergizing the Empowered Actor within a Strong Shared Infrastructure

I don’t believe the empowered actor (entrepreneur) is incompatible with a strong shared infrastructure (commons). It all depends on your underlying world view, essentially whether you see the cup as half empty or half full.

In the half empty view, there is not enough to go around, and therefor there must be a natural competition between people, with winners and losers. Since we humans are intrinsically unworthy, those of us who can rise above our nature through hard work should be rewarded as winners. That said, part of rising above that natural unworthiness is exhibiting some degree of charity to the acknowledged losers (but not too much or positive motivation will be lost). In this world view a robust commons just encourages natural laziness and discourages the competitive incentive for the empowered actor.

But in the half full view, there is enough to go around if we are all sufficiently frugal. Cooperation becomes critical so we can most effectively share finite resources. But that’s okay because it is consistent with a belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person. In this world view we all win if we can strengthen the commons or lose if we fail to do so. We recast the entrepreneur as the innovator that helps us with that strengthening task.

Since I don’t believe in the Calvinist idea that people are naturally lazy and unworthy, I believe that a strong shared support network actually facilitates entrepreneurship. Making educational resources universally available to all young people (particularly if we can move away from the current standardization, regimentation and top-down control) facilitates their full development, bringing out the inherent self-directed empowered actor in everyone. Making health care universally available regardless of your job or health will make it much easier for people to change jobs or take on more entrepreneurial projects that don’t include employer paid health insurance.

Entrepreneurs Strengthening the Commons – Wikipedia

Beyond a strong commons facilitating it, entrepreneurship itself can be recast in more cooperative rather than competitive terms with the concept of the social entrepreneur, highlighted in the Wikipedia article. We are talking about the innovative visionary person or group of people creating a good or (more likely a) service that is widely accessible at no or low cost, where that service was previously commoditized or available on a more limited basis only.

Wikipedia itself is a perfect example; an online encyclopedia created by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, and managed and updated by a worldwide cadre of volunteers and getting financial support from donations. In the past you either had to pay the cost of your own set of hard-copy encyclopedias (or more recently virtual ones like Microsoft’s Encarta) or go to a brick and mortar library and access a copy. Now if you have web access on your own computer, a massive knowledge source, always being updated (though some argue not always authoritative enough) is quickly accessible and searchable. Please ponder the profundity of Wikipedia, decomoditizing and bringing a huge chunk of the accumulated knowledge of the human species into our shared virtual commons.

From the Wikipedia article on Wikipedia (makes me laugh to write that *grin*)…

Wikipedia is a free, collaboratively edited, and multilingual Internet encyclopedia supported by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation. Its 22 million articles, over 4 million in the English Wikipedia alone, have been written collaboratively by volunteers around the world. Almost all of its articles can be edited by anyone with access to the site, and it has about 100,000 regularly active contributors. As of September 2012, there are editions of Wikipedia in 285 languages. It has become the largest and most popular general reference work on the Internet, ranking sixth globally among all websites on Alexa and having an estimated 365 million readers worldwide. It is estimated that Wikipedia receives 2.7 billion monthly pageviews from the United States.

2.7 billion times each year, someone in the United States proactively reaches out to learn about something (or find something that they can share with others so they can learn) using this free repository (other than of course the cost they may incur getting online). Before Wikipedia, how many of those 2.7 billion thoughts of “I wonder about…” led to nothing for lack of a hard-copy encyclopedia (up to date enough to have an applicable article) or other easily accessible source. Now with a computer in front of you with Internet access, it just takes a quick thought, a few key clicks and bits of the repository of human knowledge are easily revealed to you… Such a deal!


Linux is another example. It’s a computer operating system developed in 1991 by a Swedish social entrepreneur, Linus Torvalds, and made available for free, including its source code, and today is used throughout the world on computers instead of proprietary operating systems from Microsoft and Apple. Most software, including operating systems, are highly prized intellectual property protected by controlling the source code. Torvalds turned the entrepreneurial paradigm on its head by building a great piece of intellectual property and then giving it away, source code and all, adding it to the commons rather than “keeping” it, commoditizing it, and selling it for his own profit.

From the Wikipedia article on Linux

It has since been ported to more computer hardware platforms than any other operating system. It is a leading operating system on servers and other big iron systems such as mainframe computers and supercomputers: more than 90% of today’s 500 fastest supercomputers run some variant of Linux, including the 10 fastest. Linux also runs on embedded systems (devices where the operating system is typically built into the firmware and highly tailored to the system) such as mobile phones, tablet computers, network routers, televisions and video game consoles; the Android system in wide use on mobile devices is built on the Linux kernel.

The development of Linux is one of the most prominent examples of free and open source software collaboration: the underlying source code may be used, modified, and distributed — commercially or non-commercially — by anyone under licenses such as the GNU General Public License.

FYI… my little netbook computer that I’m typing this piece into is running a version of Linux. It cost me about $250, but would have cost maybe 20% more if I had purchased the Windows operating system for it instead of a freeware Ubuntu Linux OS. And given its limited hardware, it runs much better on the smaller, more efficient, Linux platform.

Google – Hybridized Virtual Semi-Commoditized Commons

We humans are cleaver creatures indeed! The entrepreneurs who run Google are leveraging this concept of an enhanced virtual commons and hybridizing it with a kind of commoditization built around creating virtual spaces where ads can be displayed. Google essentially offers an array of online services for free in exchange for posting ads everywhere in the margins. To some it may feel like the billboards distracting from the beautiful view of nature, and some of Google’s smart advertising placement based on analyzing things you have written about and posted from their G-mail email platform can have scary big brother portents. But with Google, things that we would have had to have paid for (if we had the money to do so) or go without are available to us for free.

Moving Towards a Gift Economy

So if we can recast the entrepreneur in this newer social entrepreneurship mold, and celebrate the likes of Wikipedia’s Wales and Sanger and Linux’s Torvalds, then there is no need for progressives to hedge about entrepreneurship. We can put forward a strong humanistic alternative to the conservative “let the cream rise to the top” and “you might get rich too” arguments for unrestrained capitalism.

Social entrepreneurs are the innovative actors within the new concept of the “Gift Economy” that I wrote about in my previous piece, based on the Yes! Magazine article by Charles Eisenstein, “To Build Community, an Economy of Gifts”. Eisenstein writes…

Community is woven from gifts. Unlike today’s market system, whose built-in scarcity compels competition in which more for me is less for you, in a gift economy the opposite holds. Because people in gift culture pass on their surplus rather than accumulating it, your good fortune is my good fortune: more for you is more for me. Wealth circulates, gravitating toward the greatest need. In a gift community, people know that their gifts will eventually come back to them, albeit often in a new form. Such a community might be called a “circle of the gift”… The less we use money, the less time we need to spend earning it, and the more time we have to contribute to the gift economy, and then receive from it. It is a virtuous circle.

So still needing to do a lot of thinking on this, I put it out there for your consideration and comment.

2 replies on “Synergizing Entrepreneurship and a Strong Commons”

  1. David… I’d love to come on your show and talk about these ideas that IMO contribute to moving our human society from hierarchies of control to circles of equals.

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