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Our dangerous distance between the private and the commons

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Nowhere was this thinking more evident than in the realm of invention and ideas. America itself is an idea, the first nation so conceived; so the views of the Founders on this point are especially telling. Jefferson and Madison considered the mind to be the mother lode of freedom, and they wanted no restrictions - private or public - on its fruits. The copyright and patent clause of the Constitution generally restricts these private monopolies to limited times; and this provision is of a piece with the First Amendment protections of freedom of speech.

Benjamin Franklin was no slouch when it came to a dollar - yet he didn't seek patents for his numerous inventions. "As we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad to serve others by any invention of ours," he said.

There were contrary views, of course, and these soon gained the upper hand, being more congenial to moneyed interest. But the sense of affiliation with a whole persisted, in folkways as well as public policy. There were the frontier barn raisings and harvest bees in which work and time became a commons neighbors could draw from. There was the Main Street culture that combined the commercial with the social and civic. Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas held their famous debates at county fairgrounds and town squares throughout Illinois.

Democracy wasn't separate from the setting in which it occurred; and farmers and townspeople, many with little formal schooling, sat in the baking sun for hours to listen.

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