It’s unlikely that we are ever going to get a book as rigorous and comprehensive in its treatment of infrastructure as a commons than Professor Brett Frischmann’s recently published Infrastructure: The Social Value of Shared Resources (Oxford University Press). This book is a landmark in the study of the social value of infrastructure, a theme that is generally overlooked or marginalized.
Who among us gives much thought to the economics and policy structures that govern the Internet, telecommunications, water systems, roads and highways or the electric power grid? These resources hover in the background, nearly invisible, until they break down. Then people start to contemplate the wide-ranging social, economic and civic benefits of safe bridges and reliable, efficient water systems. And if we're lucky, prudent policies are enacted.
Infrastructure tends to be neglected because it is generally very complex, technologically and financially. Its value extends well into the future and so it’s easy to ignores its benefits. And since the benefits also tend to be diffused among the general public, there is often no single individual constituency to rally behind infrastructure except those who directly profit from it.
Not surprisingly, lots of private interests have made great fortunes by privatizing public infrastructure. Since deregulation in the 1990s, the broadcasting industry has enjoyed exclusive control over our airwaves with no meaningful public interest obligations – an enclosure worth hundreds of billions of dollars. The atmosphere is used as a free waste dump by polluters. Multinational bottlers continually prowl the globe in search of free or cheap groundwater supplies while other attempt to privatize municipal water systems.