The Public Good
January 11, 2012 Leave a comment
I read this column a few days ago by Robert Reich on the Huffington Post. As I read, my reaction was “this. This. This this this this this. Yes.”
I knew I had to write about it. At the time, I couldn’t do it without copying and pasting the entire piece. Let’s see how I do today, shall we?
Take this quote:
What defines a society is a set of mutual benefits and duties embodied most visibly in public institutions — public schools, public libraries, public transportation, public hospitals, public parks, public museums, public recreation, public universities, and so on.
Public institutions are supported by all taxpayers, and are available to all.
This is my America. This is what I believe society, at its most basic and visible level, should be. This is why I don’t mind paying taxes, even though my eyes pop a wee bit every time I take the time to glace at more than my take-home income when I look at my paycheck stub. The way I see it, that is the price that I pay for living in this society. I have benefited from each and every single part of that list. I’ve attended public schools. I’ve been hospitalized in my city’s public hospitals. I made good use of the public transportation system as a teenager, and probably will again in the future. I played in the parks as a child, adolescent, teenager, and continue to enjoy them as an adult. (You cannot convince me that there is a better park system than the one here in Louisville. Even if I get lost in Cherokee Park, without fail, every time.) I have lived in the public libraries. I attended a public university. I have taken advantage of the museums and the recreation available in my fine state quite often, and am the better for it.
All of these things have kept me alive, kept me sane, kept me fulfilled and learning, and have in a very big way, shaped me into the person I am today. It would be ungrateful of me to not pay society back for everything that it has given me–and it would be irresponsible of me to do anything less but to “pay it forward” so that those who come after me may take full advantage of them as well.
If I hadn’t made use of these things? It is still my responsibility, as a member of society, to support these institutions, including defending them from disintegration and dismantlement. Even if these things hadn’t personally, directly benefited me, they are valuable and vital parts of our society. The public hospitals have saved people’s lives. The parks have provided joy, delight, enjoyment, peace, and exercise to millions. The schools teach the community’s children, introduce them to a world bigger than they imagined, spark their imagination, and enable them to become informed, engaged, enlightened, and productive members that contribute to our society. The universities open up the world even more, and provide us with new knowledge, and give its’ students new experiences and knowledge that will stay with them forever. The libraries and museums do the same–provide knowledge, expand imaginations, as well as to allow people to connect with history and other people in ways that no other institution could. And public transportation allows people a cheap, accessible, reliable means of getting to all of these places and more. Even if these things hadn’t directly benefited me, the ways that they enrich the lives of everyone living within that society does benefit me. It also benefits society, which, in turn, also benefits me.
All of these things are for the public good–and that is why the public must support them, financially and otherwise.
Much of what’s called “public” is increasingly a private good paid for by users — ever-higher tolls on public highways and public bridges, higher tuitions at so-called public universities, higher admission fees at public parks and public museums.
These higher direct costs are making these public goods accessible to fewer and fewer members of society. This negatively affects the whole–not just those who can no longer afford to access these things. I’d add another to this list–the rising prices of bus tickets and passes, and the corresponding reduction of service.
The great expansion of public institutions in America began in the early years of 20th century when progressive reformers championed the idea that we all benefit from public goods. Excellent schools, roads, parks, playgrounds, and transit systems would knit the new industrial society together, create better citizens, and generate widespread prosperity. Education, for example, was less a personal investment than a public good — improving the entire community and ultimately the nation.
We idealize the individual–but some things cannot be accomplished by an individual. Some things cannot be provided for by an individual. There are times when a community must band together, whether that be to protect, provide, or to enrich each member of the community. These things? Are it, and more. For the public good.