Re-Imagining the Public/Private Divide

Some goods and resources are better kept away from the free market. Air and water are communal goods, the well-being of society depends on their availability. If we allow them to be usurped by the market, the wealth of a few will be paid for by many.

Thinking about common goods helps us to identify a large group of resources in which citizens and and communities have an interest – politically as well as ethically. Currently, many common goods get transformed into private property so that they can be sold on the market. This is one of the major injustices of our times, although largely neglected by politics.

In economy and politics, market ideologists spare no effort – sometimes unobtrusive, sometimes blunt – to privatize resources that belong to everyone. This process of the private acquisition of common goods is referred to as “enclosure of the commons”. Neoliberalism is essentially the driving force behind privatization. Economists in industrial countries usually think of common goods as inadequately used assets, as resources that can be utilized efficiently to obtain profits. Restrictions of their use, such as social or ecological requirements, are often perceived as obstacles for growing prosperity. According to the neoliberal worldview, private property rights are the most effective way to create wealth. And the growth of a society’s treasure chest is in itself regarded as progress.

The limits of the market

Not every kind of wealth can be expressed in actual values. Ecological, social, democratic and moral values need to be acknowledged and actively protected. The theoretical approach of conventional economics hardly allows for this protection. An approach that highlights and upholds the societal and intangible value of certain public goods is helpful because it offers the possibility to label certain types of wealth that are often overlooked by classical liberal and neoliberal economics.

The proponents of the market like to assign a monetary value to everything – soil, crops, music, art – and then they try to increase the exchange value of these resources that is determined by their price. Air and water, for instance, are treated as free and unlimited resources. However, the market evaluation leaves aside the actual costs of the used resources. And they are ignoring the costs that are placed on the environment, on workers and the general public through the use of these resources. This is what an economist calls external effects. A market can be extremely productive and efficient yet take no account of environmental pollution, child labour or industrial facilities with safety hazards.

Some things cannot be monetarized

Common properties help us to develop an encompassing understanding of “wealth” and “prosperity” by referring to the concept of perpetuity. Certain resources have a value that cannot be captured by a price. Thus, those resources should be kept away from the market. The beauty of nature, the sacredness of certain places, the ecological value of fauna and flora, ethical values that demand from us not to sell products jeopardizing someone’s health, moral values and traditions that define a community: all these are riches that cannot be tagged with a price.

Read more in this debate: Rickard Falkvinge, James Bessen, Julie Samuels.


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