The Political Right and the Commons

The political right in the U.S. is dominated by libertarian-minded champions of the “free market” and highly limited government – not the most natural ally of progressives who like the commons.  Yet that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some interesting possibilities to explore.  Consider this remarkable video clip of Bill O’Reilly talking with Lou Dobbs on Fox News about rising oil prices.  (A tip of the hat to Peter Barnes for bringing this to my attention.)

O’Reilly starts off the segment by noting that oil companies are exporting U.S. oil to foreign countries, which in turn has caused U.S. gas prices to rise.  “It is my contention,” O’Reilly says, “that we the people own the gas and oil discovered in America.  It’s our land and the government administers it our name...Land and water are the domain of we the people.  That’s why oil companies have to get permits.  They can’t just go around drilling anywhere! That’s why there are environmental laws – to protect the domain of we the people.”  (Wow -- O'Reilly defends environmental laws!)

Bill then asks Lou Dobbs, a former CNN business news anchor, Tea Party supporter, and now a Fox commentator, what he thinks.  Dobbs says that he agrees with O’Reilly -- we the people own the oil, coal and other energy resources in the U.S.  Then he adds, “In Alaska, there is a perfect model for what we should do as a nation.”  He then proposes that the federal government create an American Trust Fund modeled on the Alaska Permanent Fund, a state-charted trust fund that collects a percentage of revenues from all oil drilled on state land.  The trust then invests the money and distributes annual dividend checks to every citizen in the state.  In 2010, every Alaskan resident received $1,281 kicked from a trust fund worth more than $40 billion.  None of the trust fund money goes to the government.

You can be sure that Alaskans like this commons-based solution.  Attempts by the legislature to get its hands on the trust fund money have been rebuffed many times.  As Governor in 2008, Sarah Palin shrewdly slapped an excess profits tax on oil companies and gave every Alaskan an extra $1,200 dividend.  Commons-based control over resources that we share:  that’s an idea that cuts across ideological lines and cultural identities. 

Come to think of it, conservatives find many other elements about the commons attractive:  The emphasis on personal responsibility.  The commitment to local community.  Direct popular control and limitations on government.  In some Republican quarters, you can even find a revulsion against over-commercialization of public life despite a seemingly paradoxical commitment to free markets.  For example, Pat Buchanan and Phyllis Schlafly have objected to Channel One, a pseudo-news advertising vehicle in the public schools and to other instances of crass commercialization in civic life.

If the commons could be used to attract among conservatives – perhaps even as a “wedge issue” –  then I say, let’s make the most of it.  O’Reilly and Dobbs demonstrate the potential appeal of certain types of stakeholder trusts to some Republicans, especially of the Tea Party persuasion. 

Ah, but would Wall Street, the Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce allow the American people to actually reclaim control over their own resources and earn non-labor income from them?  "A little largess and a little respect," as Dobbs puts it?  Don’t count on it.  The 1% want to protect dividends for the 1%.