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Reclaiming Our Commons in an Age of Corporate Crime

by Ralph Nader

Hundreds of billions of dollars of the nation’s wealth-the people’s resources-are being openly confiscated by corporate interests.

Government, the presumed protector of the public’s property, has become, instead, the enabler of the plunder and theft. The media, the nation’s self-professed watchdog, is apathetic, at best, in sounding the alarm about the people’s loss of control over resources they have paid for or inherited from previous generations. These are the resources that citizens legally hold in common-their common wealth.

As a result, corporations have found it easy to lay claim to a wide range of public resources-from publically-funded medical advances to national forests, public spaces in cities, the Internet, software innovations, the airwaves, the public domain of creative works, the DNA of animals, plants and humans. The appetite of Big Business for the appropriation of public resources is limitless. Even public education has not escaped the ambition of corporate control and takeover.

Surprisingly, corporate appropriation-the privatization–of public resources has proceeded quietly with only sporadic public outcries against the most blatant thefts. One public interest activist and author-David Bollier-is making a valiant effort to change that. As Bollier argues, the abuses go unnoticed because the thefts are generally seen “only in glimpses, not in panorama, when it is visible at all.”

Bollier’s new book “Silent Theft-The Private Plunder of Our Common Wealth” (Routledge, New York and London) is a loud wake-up call for citizens interested in halting the steady exploitation and erosion of the nation’s resources and values for short-term gains by the few. And the book does, indeed, provide the reader a wide, vivid and scary panoramic view of what is happening to the public’s resources-“the commons” as Bollier calls them.

“We have become a nation of eager consumers-and disengaged citizens-and so are ill-equipped to perceive how our common resources are being abused,” Bollier says. Bollier moves quickly to specifics- breakthrough cancer drugs that our tax dollars helped develop, and the rights to which pharmaceutical companies acquired for a song for which they now charge exorbitant prices. The archaic 1872 law which gives mining companies the lucrative right to mine valuable mineral resources on our public lands for $5 an acre-a right that the mining industry preserves through what Bollier describes as “well-deployed campaign contributions.”

Bollier is especially critical of the federal government’s role in giving away its most promising drug research and development to the drug companies for a fraction of its actual value with the companies then charging whatever prices they can make the desperately ill bear.

“It is a sweet deal for drugmakers but an outrage for millions of American taxpayers and consumers,” Bollier says. “It is a scandalous fact that the fruits of risky and expensive scientific work typically do not accrue to the sponsors/investors-the American people-until drug companies have extracted huge markups of their own. The American people pay twice, first as taxpayers, reaping a lower (or nonexistent) return on their investments, and second as consumers paying higher drug prices charged by pharmaceutical companies.”

Bollier reminds the reader that Americans own collectively one third of the surface area of the country and billions of acres of the outer continental shelf. The resources are extensive and valuable: huge supplies of oil, coal, natural gas, uranium, copper, gold, silver, timber grasslands, water and geothermal energy. The nation’s public land also consists of vast tracts of wilderness forests, unspoiled coastline, sweeping prairies, the Rocky Mountains, and dozens of beautiful rivers, and lakes.

“As the steward of these public resources, the government’s job is to manage these lands responsibly for the long-term,” Bollier argues. “The sad truth is that the government stewardship of this natural wealth represents one of the great scandals of the 20th Century. While the details vary from one resource to another, the general history is one of antiquated laws, poor enforcement, slipshod administration, environmental indifference and capitulation to industry’s most aggressive demands.”

The increasing exploitation of the commons, Bollier argues, needlessly siphons hundreds of billions of dollars away from the public purse each year that could be used for countless varieties of social investment, environmental protection and other public initiatives. The public’s assets and revenue streams are privatized with only fractional benefits accruing to the public in return, he says.

Bollier also contends that the enclosure of the “commons” by market forces (usually the bigger companies) tends to foster market concentration, reduce competition and raise consumer prices. He says it also threatens the environment by favoring short-term exploitation over long-term stewardship-“the flagrant abuses of public lands by timber, mining and agribusiness companies are prime examples.”

Despite his vigorous criticism of the exploitation and neglect of the public’s resources-“the commons”-Bollier remains optimistic that people can be galvanized to reverse the current trend.

“Americans have a long tradition of creating innovative vehicles for ensuring fair return to the American people on resources they collectively own,” he writes. “It is time to revive this tradition of innovation in the stewardship of public resources and give it imaginative new incarnations in the twenty-first century.”

For anyone interested in joining the effort to reverse the corporate exploitation of our public resources-David Bollier’s “Silent Theft” is a first-class starting point.

For More Information on “Silent Theft” see:


Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

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