public ownership, government ownership of lands, streets, public buildings, utilities, and other business enterprises. The theory that all land and its resources belong ultimately to the people and therefore to the government is very ancient. From it comes the doctrine of eminent domain, asserting that the state has ultimate control over lands and buildings within its borders. Until the policy of laissez faire in the 18th cent. emphasized capitalistic activity, public ownership was unquestioned. In ancient times governments owned and conducted many enterprises, such as water systems, theaters, and baths. In the United States, government units own and manage the public school system, public highways and bridges, dams for the reclamation of land and for power (and the management and sale of power), and many other enterprises. The Tennessee Valley Authority is an example of public ownership. The importance of public utilities to the life of the community has frequently led to municipal ownership of water, sewerage, electric light, power, gas, and transportation systems. In Europe, where public ownership is more extensive and of longer standing than in the United States, it includes railroads, telephone and telegraph lines, and radio and television and was extended to coal mining, other power resources, and banking. Since World War II many Western nations have practiced public ownership of business enterprises through public corporations such as Amtrak. Public ownership was practiced most extensively in the USSR and other Communist countries, where government owned almost all land and all natural resources, and where nearly all industries were carried on by state institutions. The extent of public ownership contracted in the 1980s and 90s, however, in Britain, France, Eastern Europe, and the former Soviet nations (see nationalization). Many developing countries also have large-scale public ownership, especially of vital industries and resources. Public ownership is to be distinguished from government control of private enterprises in utilities, business, and agriculture. In the United States such control has been increased through loans, direct financing, and laws providing for the government's regulation of corporate activities.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.