K. Rabeel Rahman wrote a tidy piece about “public goods” – basically, goods and services open to the public. Contrast this with private and member-only kinds of benefits and accoutrements. Things such as public roads, public water, public transportation, public sewer, open spaces and parks, museums, schools, police/fire protection and the like are public goods that (typically) are funded by tax dollars. The Commons are under grave threat since 1980.
“The Commons” is the term that refers to stuff we all use, need, and deserve. Wikipedia defines it as: “the cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society, including natural materials such as air, water, and a habitable earth. These resources are held in common, not owned privately. Commons can also be understood as natural resources that groups of people (communities, user groups) manage for individual and collective benefit.”
The history of the idea is that of English common land – like for sheep grazing. Think: commonwealth. An old story is told of a huge pasture, enough for everyone to graze a small number of sheep for personal use. Everyone shares. What happens if one person overgrazes, or if they try to have so many sheep that there isn’t enough grass growth for others? It’s a very real issue, old-timey as the story sounds. Here is Paul Hawken’s description:
“Biologist Garret Hardin’s now-famous metaphor for the deterioration or ‘tragedy’ of the global commons begins with the notion of a pasture open to everyone in a given village. In such a situation, the herder who overgrazes the most benefits the most, and the person who grazes a herd that consumes only his ‘share’ of the pasture’s yield is effectively penalized. But eventually, the entire pasture deteriorates. …This outcome fulfills what philosophers going back to Aristotle have foreseen: ‘What is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it.'”
In American society, you can see the influence of private schools, private jets, extremely expensive resorts, member-only clubs (that have a history of discrimination, as well as simple preferences for who is welcome), top-level health insurance, bullet-proof limousines, toll roads, and the like. What happens, then, is that two societies are created: those who “have” get all the best stuff, and those with fewer means get the leavings. It used to be where everyone was kind of in the same boat (I think maybe the effect of World War II) and thus we all benefitted from the wealthy’s largesse. People of different social classes and political persuasions were more likely to mingle in “the Commons.”
One of the issues, of course, is that in such a sprawling, crowded, diverse, fractious country such as this one, should we all be in this together? Is it feasible? The answer to that question is largely answered based on one’s political views. Liberals tend to be much more in favor of sharing, cooperating, helping, and diversity. Conservatives are more likely to see the Commons as a place where different people happen to be, coincidentally. Rahman characterizes modern politics when it comes to the Commons with the following point: “As the Republican repeal of President Barack Obama’s signature health care reform barreled forward this spring, leading conservatives framed their agenda in familiar terms. Mick Mulvaney, former Tea Party congressman and President Donald Trump’s new budget director, asked why responsible taxpayers should ‘be required to take care of the person who sits home, drinks sugary drinks . . . and doesn’t exercise, and eats poorly and gets diabetes.’”
Though liberals often lambaste conservatives’ views as selfish and short-sighted, it is a fair point that Mr. Mulvaney brings up. Who wants to be in a three-legged race with someone who is handicapped, lazy, or stupid?
The Republicans’ interest in wiping away the flawed ACA (i.e., “ObamaCare”) landed on the media scene with a dull thud. Rahman reports: “Yet to the surprise of many, the proposed replacement, which included brazen attempts to gut Medicaid and dismantle subsidies and nondiscrimination provisions, set off a firestorm of resistance from ordinary Americans. Protesters jammed lawmakers’ offices, town halls, and phone lines. In crowds dwarfing the 2010 Tea Party protests against the Affordable Care Act, Americans voiced their opposition to the House repeal bill. These protests by and large called for the exact opposite of Mulvaney’s critique: an expansion of health care as a “human right.” In California statutes that would create a single-payer health care system are even now making their way through the legislature.” Insuring all citizens is certainly a way of extolling the virtues of the Commons.
Privatization is the buzz-word for sucking the life out of the Commons. Think: “school choice” and Blackwater fighting for the U.S. overseas. Private, for-profit prisons in the land of mass incarceration is about as indefensible as it gets. Yes, bureaucrats and government employees are sometimes too protected (think: teachers’ unions). However, do we really want to let corporations worm their way into the public sphere and reduce both jobs and social goods available to the masses? Here is Rahman’s take:
“The clash over health care is the most glaring example of a more widespread battle over the meaning and importance of public goods: what they are, how they ought to be provided—and to whom. The question of whether to privatize and deregulate, or to restore—and even expand—public provision is at the heart of many contemporary political, economic, and moral debates. At the federal level, the question over public provision manifests in disputes over privatizing education or slashing funds for affordable housing. On a more local level, the poisonous water of Flint, Michigan, exemplifies the toll of the larger trend of budget-cutting and privatizing vital public services.”
This, unfortunately, is reminiscent of the “starve the beast” strategy employed by some dark-souled conservatives. The man whose legacy was tarnished by Vietnam was, in ways, into social goods and had a positive vision for the Commons. Johnson says: “The Great Society had a real chance to grow into a beautiful woman. I figured she’d be so big and beautiful that the American people couldn’t help but fall in love with her…but now Nixon has come along and everything I’ve worked for is ruined…She’s getting thinner and thinner and uglier and uglier all the time. The American people will refuse to look at her; they’ll stick her in a closet to hide her away and there she’ll die. And when she dies, I, too, will die.” When the public schools get thin enough will they die? Cut enough regulation on business and the environment will be that much harder to manage. The U.S., China, and India could literally fail to regulate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions and forever change the Commons. We could make the Earth uninhabitable by human beings.
Bernie Sanders makes it crystal clear: “It is an extraordinarily cynical “two-step” process. First, Republicans are looting the Treasury. They are stealing trillions of dollars from the American people in order to give huge tax breaks to billionaires and large corporations. Second, as their tax breaks increase the deficit by $1.4 trillion, they will come back and, in the name of “deficit reduction,” propose major cuts to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, education, nutrition, affordable housing and other programs desperately needed by the shrinking middle class.”
Paul Buchheit, the author of Disposable Americans, agrees: – “Most people looking to make big money are eager to disparage public systems as inefficient, wasteful and inferior. Many of those people are in a position to starve the public systems of funding, thereby making them less functional, and making the private options look more appealing.”
The Public Sphere Project interestingly describes the issue as: “One of the biggest problems in contemporary life is the unchecked growth of market values as a way to govern resources and ourselves. This is resulting in the privatization and commodification or ‘enclosure’ of the commons. Resources that morally or legally belong to everyone are increasingly coming under the control of markets. Not only does enclosure result in higher prices and the need to ask for permission to use something previously available to all, it shifts ownership and control to private companies. The market efficiencies that businesses seek can be illusory, however, because they often depend upon unacknowledged subsidies from the commons (for example, discount access to public resources) and the displacement of costs onto the commons (pollution, social disruption, harm to future generations). Enclosure does not add value in the aggregate; it merely privatizes value at the expense of the commonwealth.”
Here is the original article that kicked off this blog: https://bostonreview.net/forum/k-sabeel-rahman-losing-and-gaining-public-goods.
I will share a few quotes from various individuals, especially the semi-communitarian public philosopher, Michael J. Sandel of Harvard University. You are welcome to look up your own quotations – always free – in The Wisdom Archive. This massive database is, I suppose, my version of contributing public goods to all.
“Where political discourse lacks moral resonance, the yearning for a public life of larger meaning finds undesirable expression. The Christian Coalition and similar groups seek to clothe the naked public square with narrow, intolerant moralisms. Fundamentalists rush in where liberals fear to tread.”
“The life committed to nothing larger than itself is a meager life indeed. Human beings require a context of meaning and hope. …I call the larger setting ‘the commons.’ It consists of a belief in the nation, in God, in one’s family, or in a purpose that transcends our lives.”
“Providing everyone a fair opportunity to reap the rewards of an affluent society is one aspect of the good society. But fairness isn’t everything. It does not answer the hunger for a public life of larger meaning because it does not connect the project of self-government with people’s desire to participate in a common good greater than themselves.”
“On most issues, most Americans are certainly left of this Administration. Not necessarily left, but more commonsensical. Given a chance, they’d spend less on the military, they wouldn’t make more nuclear weapons, they would want to increase environmental regulation rather than reduce it, they would want to spend more on education and healthcare, they would enforce corporate-responsibility laws and make corporations pay their taxes, all those kinds of things. Crazy talk.”
“Without clean water, fertile soils and genetic diversity, human survival is not possible. Today, economic development is destroying these one-time commons, resulting in the creation of a new contradiction: Development deprives the very people it professes to help of their traditional land and means of sustenance, forcing them to survive in an increasingly eroded natural world.”
“Reagan’s presidency did little to alter the conditions underlying the discontent. He governed more as a market conservative than as a civic conservative. The unfettered capitalism he favored did nothing to repair the moral fabric of families, neighborhoods, and communities — and much to undermine them.”
“Over the last century, the market has been destroying the commons at an accelerating pace. The belief was that happiness and the good life lay always in the direction of more property and more stuff. The result has been environmental degradation, social breakdown, and so much unhappiness that people resort to drugs in increasing numbers just to feel okay. Life is telling us something.”
“Public schools are based on the principle of solidarity…: “I happily pay taxes so that the kid across the street can go to school”. That’s normal human emotion. You have to drive that out of people’s heads. ‘I don’t have kids in school. Why should I pay taxes? Privatize it’, so on. The public education system – all the way from kindergarten to higher education – is under severe attack. I mean, that is one of the jewels of American society!”
“These institutions include the townships, schools, religions, and virtue-sustaining occupations that form the ‘character of mind’ and ‘habits of the heart’ a democratic republic requires. Whatever their more particular purposes, these agencies of civic education inculcate the habit of attending to public things. And yet given their multiplicity, they prevent public life from dissolving into and undifferentiated whole.”
If you engage in an activity in service of the commons long enough, it will increase meaning for you. You may find that you get depressed less easily, that you get sick less often, and that you feel better acting for the common good than indulging in solitary pleasures. Most important, an emptiness inside you – the meaninglessness than rampant individualism nurtures – will begin to fill.”
Here is a podcast I recorded on income and wealth inequality.