The Privatization of Everything

How the Plunder of Public Goods Transformed America and How We Can Fight Back

America’s leading defender of the public interest and a bestselling historian show us how to prevent the private takeover of our cherished public resources

“An essential read for those who want to fight the assault on public goods and the commons.” —Naomi Klein

As people reach for social justice and better lives, they create public goods—free education, public health, open parks, clean water, and many others—that must be kept out of the market. When private interests take over, they strip public goods of their power to lift people up, creating instead a tool to diminish democracy, further inequality, and separate us from each other.

The Privatization of Everything, by the founder of In the Public Interest, an organization dedicated to shared prosperity and the common good, chronicles the efforts to turn our public goods into private profit centers. Ever since Ronald Reagan labeled government a dangerous threat, privatization has touched every aspect of our lives, from water and trash collection to the justice system and the military.

However, citizens can, and are, wresting back what is ours. A Montana city took back its water infrastructure after finding that they could do it better and cheaper. Colorado towns fought back well-funded campaigns to preserve telecom monopolies and hamstring public broadband. A motivated lawyer fought all the way to the Supreme Court after the State of Georgia erected privatized paywalls around its legal code.

The Privatization of Everything connects the dots across a broad spectrum of issues and raises larger questions about who controls the public things we all rely on, exposing the hidden crisis of privatization that has been slowly unfolding over the last fifty years and giving us a road map for taking our country back.


“From water systems to private prisons, charter schools to exclusive patents on life-saving drugs, Cohen and Mikaelian describe an astonishing array of privatization scams and schemes and, helpfully, where some communities are successfully resisting.”
—Annie Leonard, executive director, Greenpeace USA, and author of The Story of Stuff
“Connects the dots between privatization and our current political crisis, showing how it has been enabled by and fed racism and the deterioration of our democratic culture. A must-read for policymakers and activists who want to rebuild government and democracy.”
—Deepak Bhargava, distinguished lecturer, CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies, and former director, Center for Community Change
“A compelling and poignant case for why our public goods deserve to be in the hands of the public and how privatization exploits our most vulnerable while exacerbating social, political, health, and economic barriers to equality.”
—Rosa DeLauro, congresswoman and author of The Least Among Us
“Exposes with incredible detail and acuity the market-driven, anti-government ideology that now pervades every corner of our society, and offers a rousing defense of public goods as essential to our collective well-being.”
—Astra Taylor, author of Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone
“A dozen years ago, after years of organizing against and research about privatization as it spread across all sectors, we concluded that ‘Damn! They really do want it all.’ The Privatization of Everything skillfully documents the extent to which this is even more true today, and how we can fight to take back what’s rightfully ours.”
—Si Kahn and Elizabeth Minnich, authors of The Fox in the Henhouse: How Privatization Threatens Democracy
“Pulls the lid off one of the longest cons in American history—the wholesale privatization of public goods, which enriches the wealthy and corporations while immiserating everyone else. For the last four decades we’ve been scammed into selling our infrastructure, our public health, and even our drinking water to for-profit businesses. This book cogently explains how we can stop the scammers and retake the public sector, creating a more prosperous future for everyone.”
—Nick Hanauer
“Pulls back the curtain on the multi-decade effort by profiteers to privatize and monetize America’s public goods at the expense of the American people. This book is a must-read for anyone who values the importance our public schools, libraries, transit and health systems and a clean and healthy environment play in creating vibrant communities and a strong democracy. Public goods are indeed for the common good and it’s vital we turn the tide on the privatization agenda that has only succeeded in draining our communities and making the rich richer and Donald Cohen and Allen Mikaelian give us the road map to do just that.”
—Randi Weingarten, president, American Federation of Teachers
“[An] impassioned and well-informed cri de coeur that the decades-long trend of privatizing public services in the U.S. has been a disaster for the average citizen.”
Publishers Weekly
The Privatization of Everything warns of the dangers of leaving our collective future and well-being in the hands of private market interest alone. We lose sight of our interdependence and create barriers to the care and support we all need. The book’s clarion call for a movement for the public good is just what we need to build a caring economy and society, rooted in the complexities of humanity.”
—Ai-jen Poo, executive director, National Domestic Workers Alliance
“In The Privatization of Everything, Donald Cohen and Allen Mikaelian expose how right-wing ideology and class profit-seeking masquerading as social science undermined our national interests and values over many decades. Cohen and Mikaelian reframe the concepts of democracy, freedom, competition, and efficiency in this timely and essential book.”
—Thea Mei Lee, deputy undersecretary for International Labor Affairs and former president of the Economic Policy Institute
“Essential reading for understanding big business’s movement to privatize public goods and how we can fight back and create an economy that works for all.”
—Dorian Warren, president, Community Change
“The book demonstrates why racial justice is a foundational principle for our democracy and how the racialized dismantling of the public is an attack on our core values as a nation. Racial justice and democracy are inextricably intertwined, and we cannot have one without the other. Both require robust public institutions driven by our values. The authors provide compelling, detailed and unassailable history and case studies on how privatization impoverishes our government and divides our people from each other. It is a powerful call to end these practices and build our public institutions through an equitable vision. We would be wise to heed that call.”
—Glenn Harris, president, Race Forward
“Brilliantly distills and illustrates the critically important idea that our public goods should be controlled by the American people.”
—Nancy MacLean, author of Democracy in Chains
“A well-researched call to action that reveals with crystal clarity the stakes of the stealth project to destroy the commons.”
—Heather McGhee, author of The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together
“Brings us up to speed on one of the most important shifts in our political economy in a generation. And somehow makes it a fun read!”
—George Geohl, director, People’s Action
“The issue of privatization is one of the subtlest, most insidious bait-and-switch schemes of the last century. It happened gradually but relentlessly, and so it is the hardest kind of problem to address. The Privatization of Everything tells us how. Every American should read this book.”
—Abigail Disney, activist and filmmaker
“A passionate defense of the idea of public goods and a detailed account of the myriad problems that are caused by turning them over to private corporations. Exploring the gritty, compromised way that privatization actually works cuts through ideological celebrations of the market’s glories and offers a political language with which to defend the public sector.”
—Kim Phillips-Fein, author of Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal
The Privatization of Everything reveals how the private sector has taken over public functions—from providing clean water to forecasting the weather—long performed better and less expensively by government agencies, and how taking back public control will make us a better, healthier country.”
—David Michaels, former administrator of OSHA and author of The Triumph of Doubt: Dark Money and the Science of Deception
“A strong, economics-based argument for restoring the boundaries between public goods and private gains.”
Kirkus Reviews
“Enlightening and sobering. It is a relief to have a progressive voice with a firm eye on justice who can carefully parse out complex issues for those of us who take pride in citizenship, and have a deep interest in policy.”
—Rosanne Cash
“An important and groundbreaking book, detailing the decades-long campaign/grift to turn public goods and services into private profit-centers. Instead of saving the taxpayer’s money, the scheme enriched private business at the expense of both our pocketbooks and civic life. We’ve been had and Donald Cohen and Allen Mikaelian show us exactly how the scheme worked—and what we as Americans can do to fight back.”
—Helaine Olen, author of Pound Foolish
“Nearly fifty years ago, large corporations and their Wall Street backers adopted a two-pronged strategy to seize power: they would use monopolization to concentrate control over our markets and privatization to assume the authority of government itself. This smart and engaging book moves far beyond the conventional debates about privatization. Filled with shocking stories of the cooptation of democracy by corporate interests, it shows that what’s at stake is nothing short of our liberty as a free and self-governing people.”
—Stacy Mitchell, co-director, Institute for Local Self-Reliance
“In the face of pandemic and catastrophic climate change, our atomized, privatized society does not and cannot provide for our well-being. The Privatization of Everything explains how we arrived at this critical juncture and where we must go from here. This fascinating, lively book reveals how, over decades, the American public’s power over essential goods, including everything from water and roads to education and health care, has been transferred into the hands of corporate entities that, by definition, seek private profit over the public interest. It is a clarion call to reclaim our citizenship and rebuild the public sphere.”
—Vanessa Williamson, senior fellow, Brookings Institution, and author of Read My Lips: Why Americans Are Proud to Pay Taxes

News and Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Read a review of The Privatization of Everything in Publishers Weekly.

Goodreads Reviews