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Public assets, private profits: reclaiming the American commons in an age of market enclosure

By David Bollier - posted Monday, 30 April 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: The Commons, Gift

Economies and Enclosure

Part I 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.

1. Reclaiming the Narrative of the Commons.

To understand the importance of the commons in American life, we must first dispel the misleading metaphor of the "tragedy of the commons." This and other concepts prevent us from understanding how human cooperation can in fact flourish and produce a robust and innovative commons in many contexts. This fact can be seen in self-organizing community gardens, scientific communities that share research results, and Internet communities that generate and share valuable information for free.


The American experiment in self-governance is itself a commons, perhaps better known as a "commonwealth."

Through community commitments and cooperation, people often generate remarkable economic and social wealth, defying the standard economic narrative about self-interested utility maximization.

2. The Stubborn Vitality of the Gift Economy.

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This is the executive summary of David’s paper, presented to the "Reclaiming America's Commons" seminar at the National Press Club, Washington DC on 12 March 2001.

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About the Author

David Bollier is Director of the Information Commons Project at the New America Foundation, a Senior Fellow at the Norman Lear Center at the USC Annenberg School for Communication, an advisor to Norman Lear, and a strategic consultant to foundations, nonprofits and citizen groups.

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