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A Useful Framework?

A Response to Reclaiming the Commons

Nicholas Johnson

8 David Bollier's "Reclaiming the Commons" offers us at least two significant contributions:

1. Bollier reminds us that many aspects of our society and economy, of great significance to individual and community life, serve us less well when operated to maximize profit for private owners.

2. He offers us the concept of the "commons" as a way of understanding both our needs and the ways in which those needs are compromised by private ownership.

Most readers of Boston Review will probably agree with Bollier's first point. Most will also likely recognize the concept of commons and sometimes find it useful in this context. My concern is that stretching the rubber band of "commons" around the range of issues he covers causes it to snap. That renders it less useful in holding together the arguments it can contain.

Bollier offers four case studies. I largely agree with the philosophy, policy, and politics underlying his discussion. I am currently writing about the pharmaceutical industry in words consistent with those of Bollier, and have come to conclude that the industry's behavior is so egregious in supplying essential goods that we simply must consider its nationalization. Since my appointment as an FCC Commissioner in 1966, I have voiced concerns similar to Bollier's about the public interest responsibilities of broadcasters.

With regard to the Internet, I find Lawrence Lessig's book, The Future of Ideas (which Bollier cites), to be a useful text in my Cyberspace Law Seminar. Moreover, on my web site, I attempt to practice what he and Bollier preach: anyone can download hundreds of my articles, even a couple of books, for free.1

On the question of children, I have never liked Jonathan Swift's suggestion that we eat them. So I agree with Bollier about that as well.

Bollier and I agree less, however, about the utility of the commons framework in analyzing these, and related, issues.

Federal subsidies as commons

Massive campaign contributions can bring corporate donors returns of one thousand to one or more from government action. The pharmaceutical industry is an outrageous example. But is it helpful to say that all private recipients of federal money "steal the goose from off the common"?

You and I may not like our elected representatives' decisions, but unless we're willing to challenge Winston Churchill's conclusion ("democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others") we're stuck with them. With the exception of our current president, each was elected by a majority of the voters. Their decisions are what our system produces.

Broadcasting as commons

One can argue, as broadcasters do, that the "airwaves" are no more a commons, and no more scarce, than land—which is mostly held in private ownership. Bollier and I disagree with the broadcasters.

But however one comes out on that electrical engineering diversion, broadcasting involves much more than a commons analysis can provide. As the duck says in the movie Babe with regard to the prohibition on pigs in houses, "That's a good rule. I like that rule. But this is bigger than rules."

Isn't our real concern about broadcasting the central role of its content in the democratic process? If so, to put emphasis on broadcasting's largely obsolete "commons" technology is to give away the arguments regarding the importance of all media and all means of distribution.

Nor are ownership limitations the solution. If ten thousand broadcast stations were separately owned by ten thousand profit-maximizing Republican Rotarians there wouldn't be much more programming diversity than if all were owned by one.

What would produce diversity would be a total separation of content from conduit in all media. (You can own the programming, or the cable system, but not both.) Or, a requirement of at least some right of paid entry into all near-monopoly media. (Newspapers couldn't refuse every paid ad they disagreed with.)

Internet as commons

The pre-divestiture AT&T was a kind of conduit-only commons. No one could be refused a phone. And AT&T didn't censor content. As a result, few First Amendment complaints were lodged against this Goliath monopolist.

The Internet is kind of like that. Or at least it was. Here "commons" is helpful. And I agree with Bollier (and Lessig) that it's under attack from the corporate thief "that steals the common from the goose."

Children as commons

Do children in the United States get the public policy regard provided by civilized nations? No. Are they commercially exploited? Absolutely. Must we, can we, do better? Of course. Do we have a common interest in our community's children? Yes. (It takes a child to raise a village.) But the idea that children are usefully thought of as a "commons" seems abstract and strained. The commons framework is more appropriately applied to air, water, public lands, and public domain intellectual property. I don't find it useful with children's issues.

Nevertheless, "Reclaiming the Commons," shouts a warning we all need to hear. And if we don't start talking about the privatization of our media today, we are likely to discover that we can no longer talk about much of anything that matters tomorrow. <


Nicholas Johnson, a former FCC Commissioner and recovering school board member, teaches law at University of Iowa.

Click here to return to the new deomocracy forum, Ruled by the Market? with David Bollier and respondents.

Note

1 See http://www.nicholasjohnson.org [1 July 2002].

Originally published in the Summer 2002 issue of Boston Review



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