Along the path toward the creation of a global capitalist system, some of the most significant steps were taken by the English enclosure movement.
Between the 15th and 19th centuries, the rich and the powerful fenced off commonly held land and transformed it into private property. Land switched from a source of subsistence to a source of profit, and small farmers were relegated to wage laborers. In Das Kapital, Marx described the process by coining the term land-grabbing. To British historian E.P. Thompson, it was “a plain enough case of class robbery.”
More recently, a similar enclosure movement has taken place. This time, the fenced-off commodity is life-saving medicine. Playing the role of modern-day lords of the manor are pharmaceutical corporations, which have taken a good that was once considered off-limits for private profiteering and turned it into an expensive commodity. Instead of displacing small landholders, this enclosure movement causes suffering and death: Billions of people across the globe go without essential medicines, and 10 million die each year as a result.
Many people curse the for-profit medicine industry. But few know that the enclosure erected around affordable medicines is both relatively new and artificially imposed. For nearly all of human history, attempting to corner the markets on affordable medicines has been considered both immoral and illegal.
It’s time now to reclaim this commons, and reestablish medicines as a public good.
Medicines as a Public Good
Most of us define public goods broadly. We use the term to refer to benefits like law enforcement, street lights, and mass transit, which are collectively provided and deliver shared value to all. Economists narrow down that definition somewhat, saying that public goods are non-rivalrous and non-excludable in their consumption.
Non-rivalrous means that any one person can benefit from a good without reducing others’ opportunity to benefit as well. My eating an apple prevents you from consuming it, so that’s a rivalrous good. But I can watch the same TV show as you without lessening your opportunity to enjoy it as well—that’s non-rivalrous.
Non-excludable means what it sounds like: A person cannot be prevented from consuming the good in question. Clean air is a good that can be enjoyed by all without the possibility of denying access to those who don’t register or pay a fee. But access to a private swimming pool is an excludable good. The classic example of a non-rivalrous, non-excludable public good is a lighthouse: One ship benefitting from its warning doesn’t subtract from any other ships’ chances of enjoying a similar benefit, and there’s no practical way of limiting the lighthouse’s warnings to a select few.