Public Assets, Private Profits

Policy Paper
March 1, 2001

Many of the resources that Americans own as a people — forests and minerals under public lands, public information and federally financed research, the broadcast airwaves and public institutions and traditions — are increasingly being taken over by private business interests. These appropriations of common assets are siphoning revenues from the public treasury, shifting ownership and control from public to private interests, and eroding democratic processes and shared cultural values.

In the face of this marketization of public resources, most Americans do not realize that some of our most valuable assets are collective and social in character — our “common wealth.” Collectively, U.S. citizens own one-third of the surface area of the country, as well as the mineral-rich continental shelf. Huge deposits of oil, uranium, natural gas and other mineral wealth can be found on public lands, along with rich supplies of timber, fresh water and grazing land. Beyond environmental resources, the American people own dozens of other assets with substantial market value, including government- funded research and development, the Internet, the airwaves and the public information domain.

Our government, for its part, is not adequately protecting these assets. Instead, it is selling them off at huge discounts, giving them away for free, or marketizing resources that should not be sold in the first place. These include, public lands, genetic structures of life, the public’s intellectual property rights, and cherished civic symbols.

The growing appropriations of public assets — and the spread of market values to areas of life where they should not go — could be called the “enclosure” of the American commons.

Part I of this Report sets forth the basic concepts that animate this report: the importance of the commons, the value of gift economies, and the harms caused by market enclosures of the commons. Part II examines five major sets of commons and the distressing enclosures that are now laying siege to them. Part III discusses strategies for reclaiming the American Commons.

For the complete report, please see the attached PDF version below.

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