Once upon a time, before corporations had become persons, they were legal entities that offered ordinary people the chance to own shares in the nation’s economy, an opportunity until-then reserved primarily to industrial titans and robber barons. It hasn’t turned out that way: far more families own cats than shares of stock, and 10% of Americans own 81% of all stocks. This has exacerbated the wealth gap, centralized corporate decision-making, and provided lots of money to influence politics – a 21st-century version of the “military-industrial complex” Eisenhower warned against. With congressional approval ratings remaining abysmally low, many Americans feel shut out of the economy and unrepresented by their elected officials. In a democracy, this is not a good thing. The current system has privatized the commons, polluted it, extracted its public goods at a fraction of their value – and created a class of politicians beholden to special interests.
Yet I believe that the free-enterprise system itself provides fertile ground for change, and I see many people planting seeds of hope: shareholder initiatives demanding changes in corporate environmental and social policies; signs of recognition that the best long-term returns will come from companies that operate sustainably and mindfully; social networks and crowdfunding that are democratizing investment opportunities and financing young entrepreneurs. Their collective effort is to create a free-enterprise system that is open to ordinary people, that exists not just for private gain but for public good and that seeks not to destroy the commons but to revive it.