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The Shrinking Public

One of our great national stories is the flowering of public institutions – public libraries, public parks, public schools, public services, public highways, public office, public transportation, public universities, public health agencies, etc. Behind this flourishing was the notion that healthy and vibrant democratic communities are nurtured and sustained by providing access to a range of cultural, recreational, educational, social, natural, and economic resources to every citizen, that the costs of this access should be borne fairly by all, and that oversight of these public resources should be in the hands of the public itself.

Of course, money has always allowed some to avoid the polluting masses by purchasing private services and spaces – private golf clubs, private beaches, private libraries, private schools, private security, etc. In the mid-twentieth century the public itself financed a massive expansion of private transportation through the building of the federal highways system. Access to these public institutions has always been skewed by race and class; people in higher income areas have generally had more and better maintained public parks, for example, or more adequately funded public schools. And the flowering of public institutions has never been immune to greed, corruption, and abuse. But careful and thoughtful eyes will see a remarkable legacy in any of our communities from the public consciousness of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Yet today that public is shrinking. This examples are numerous: Privately operated charter schools replacing closed public schools. Tax credits for private donations to private schools, financed by public dollars. Reduced staffing and hours at public libraries. Rentals of public parks for the exclusive galas of private individuals. Decaying public infrastructure, especially for public transportation. Toll roads sold to private enterprises. Slashed funding for public universities and, in places like Wisconsin, attempts to transform the liberal intellectual underpinnings of higher education with the pinched goal of merely serving the employment needs of private business. In Chicago public park land has been turned over to the private foundation building the Obama library. Today’s wars are being fought not by a public army but by private contractors like the infamous Blackwater Corporation. And as is obscenely apparent across the political spectrum, political campaigns for public office are being financed by an elite group of extremely wealthy private donors who will expect winners to serve their narrow private interests.

The reasons for the shrinking public are many. The institutions that embody this “public” have sometimes failed. Public housing in many places comes to mind: failed imagination, failed planning, failed oversight. Corruption has often undermined confidence in the public.   The growing cynicism many have for government can be traced to things like Watergate and a seeming endless number of subsequent “-gates.” Opportunities for private gain provide private individuals with political connection the right to carve up and “monetize” the public for their own benefit. Much of the charter school movement, with its network of entwined private vendors and wealthy investors is a prime example. And laws attempting to protect the public against private influence are increasingly at risk. Think Citizens United.

The cost of maintaining a flourishing public is challenging. Public spending requires public revenue – taxes – and increasingly the political class, which today ranges from economic centrists to economic right wingers, refuses to consider adequate taxation in order to adequately fund the public (in part because their public careers are privately funded by those seeking protection from fair tax policies). Further, a public consciousness and stewardship runs against the current of an American individualism that has been fueled by a demeaning of the public ever since Ronald Reagan famously stated in his first inaugural address, “In this instance, government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.” While he conditioned those remarks, the long list of followers since has not, leaving a legacy of a mistrust of the public bordering on hatred and distain.

In his influential book On Thinking Institutionally, political philosopher Hugh Heclo writes,

“Our distrust of institutions is not going to go away. By now it is deeply entwined in our modern culture’s genetic code. But it is not so much distrust as cynicism that threatens us individually in our personal lives and collectively as a functioning society. Hence the counsel: distrust, but value. . . . We can still value the humane purposes of ‘good’ institutions, especially the superintending institutions of law and government that all the others depend on. We can work at thinking and acting institutionally in the business of daily life. And we can take genuine satisfaction doing so in light of all the shortsighted, self-serving, and destructive pressures to the contrary.”

Heclo’s project is wider that just the public and its institutions, but it does speak to the current crisis that the public faces.   Much is at stake in the shrinking of our once flourishing public. The defender of the public is, of course, the public itself. How tragic it would be if 21st century Americans failed to protect the rich legacy their 20th and 19th century forebears bequeathed to them.

John H. Thomas
May 21, 2015

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