Free the Magna Carta!

What are ideas worth to you? If you have any interest in antiques at all, then I’d reckon that a good idea is worth quite a bit to you.

Without such a thing, how would that delicate leaf pattern on your mochaware bowls have been born? How would Charles and Ray Eames have revolutionized the lounge chair? We have the privilege in antiques of benefiting from the ideas of others, of buying and selling the products that sprang from them. It’s a fine thing, and I’m all for it.

There is a place, however, where I have to draw the line.

In mid-December, a copy of the Magna Carta was sold at auction. It brought more than $20M. You can read about it inside. If you don’t know what the Magna Carta is, well… You obviously never paid attention in history class. Let’s just say that it’s the very reason you enjoy the freedoms you do, and the reason that the Declaration of Independence itself was written.

The Magna Carta, like the Declaration, or the U.S. Constitution, is one of those things that is more than the sum of its parts. The ink on the paper of the physical thing itself is nothing compared to the significance of the ideas presented therein. Those ideas have shaped the last 1,000 years of history, in countless ways. How can a price be put on such a thing?

There are but few left in the world, less than 20, and only two of them are held outside of Britain. I applaud David Rubenstein, the man who bought it – a former Carter Administration official and a founder of The Carlyle Group – for buying it solely to keep it in the National Archives. That is indeed a generous gift to the nation at Christmas time, but it also begs the question of why the previous owner, Ross Perot, wanted to sell the thing in the first place. Is he hurting for the cash?

I propose that such things belong to the world, and that there should be no private holding attached to it, in any way. Documents upon which ideas are written, ideas that shape epochs and change thinking, cannot be represented by a sum of dollars. They should all be donated to great public museums around the world and be kept on display for all and any to see, any time, for free.

This is like the current fight in science where a corporation is trying to copyright the human genome, meaning our DNA – the very makeup of our physical bodies as represented by a series of “x”s and “y”s – would be held by a private entity. Isn’t such a thing inherently priceless, simply because of the enormity of what those “x”s and “y”s ultimately represent?

The same thing goes for the ideas and philosophies that have given humans identity and direction for centuries. At a certain point, there is no value that can be assigned and no person can be sole proprietor, no matter how or where they display their treasure.

After so many years of being key to granting people freedoms, there is more than a little irony now that I am asking that the Magna Carta itself, every last copy, be freed.