The Big Secret and the Bigger Mistake
What’s the secret? The very existence of corporations depends on the government giving and protecting property rights. The bigger mistake? We have acted as though corporations belonged solely to their owners rather than to the civic systems of provision that gives them sources and resources to make provisions for all of us. It’s time to tell and secret and to correct the mistake.
Do you ever see a corporation? It’s not a building or a brand, although corporations have both. A corporation, first of all, is a legal contract that grants existence: a license to operate in our communities. No one wants to talk about this, because those in power benefit if we naively assume that property rights are grounded in private ownership rather than in civic membership.
Keeping the secret secret is actually central to American identity. Is not the “American Dream” a dream of property ownership? Independence, for the most part, means we do not have to share or depend on others. In fact, American independence belongs to a long legacy that I outlined in Civilizing the Economy—a legacy that begins with the ownership of slaves as an integral part of early Atlantic capitalism. Let’s admit that the American Revolution was a revolution about ownership, as was the Civic War. And yet, we know that we all finally depend on a civic order.
As we see owners withdrawing “their” corporations from the systems that provide us what we need, we need to tell the secret. This will allow us to correct the bigger mistake—the mistake that economic relations are only property relations, and that those without property should not be included in our economic framework. This was Adam Smith’s view. In his The Wealth of Nations, the slaves that produced the tobacco that made Scotland rich are not included in his analysis of wealth creation. Instead we have the story of the “invisible hand.” His hand was a hand that dealt with things you could buy and sell, and turned the key sources of wealth—land, labor, and money—into commodities.
Well, land is not a commodity, but part of a living planet that is under great distress. Labor is not a commodity, but rather workers striving to make provisions for us all. Treating money as a commodity is also a mistake. It should function as a means for promoting economic development, paying taxes, and making exchanges.
To correct the mistake of seeing all sources of wealth as commodities or properties, we need to return to the original meaning of economics: household management, which can be understood as a civic economics of provision.