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Throughout this forum, the idea of public goods has been linked to water, housing, parks, and more. Taken together, the thoughtful responses highlight two crucial questions about our understanding of public goods. First, what types of goods qualify as “public” in a democratic conception? Or, more precisely, what makes a good “public,” as opposed to merely ordinary? And second, what kinds of policy tools—including but not limited to direct state provision—can we employ to ensure more equitable and inclusive access to these goods?
I share Michael Hardt’s attraction to the idea of the commons as a way to understand the moral aspirations of democratic public goods—goods that are open access and democratically governed. “Publicness,” then, helps label those goods which are so vital that they ought to be governed with a focus on precisely these values of openness, access, and democratic control.
It is this publicness that animates Joshua Cohen’s moving discussion of Frederick Law Olmsted and Central Park. For contemporary social reformers, parks served a critical public and democratic function by not only being accessible to all (and thereby dislodging aristocratic monopolization of ecological beauty) but also by creating a shared democratic experience through which a common identity as members of the polity could be constructed. Both Hardt and Cohen highlight what I think of as the positive dimension of democratic public goods: public goods enable new forms of individual and collective experience. In short, they empower individuals and communities.
What makes a good ‘public?’ And what kinds of policy tools can we employ to ensure more equitable and inclusive access to these goods?
But there is also a negative dimension that helps inform our identification of which goods should be accorded this moral stature of “publicness.” Public goods are also those for which an absence of democratic control to ensure access is likely to place individuals and communities under troubling conditions of subordination. This was one of the key arguments in the rise of public utility regulation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Paralleling the positive, constructive visions of municipal reformers such as Olmsted, many reformers were energized by a wariness toward private actors who could exercise unchecked control over increasingly vital services such as telecom or railroads. These private actors, reformers argued, were essentially semi-sovereign, dictating the prospects of so many towns, businesses, and individuals without the democratic checks and balances that we expect of state actors. As Lauren Jacobs rightly argues in her essay, this same concern is present today: hedge funds and corporate actors continue to limit access to public goods.
These two conditions—the positive capacities that public goods can unlock, and the negative threat of domination if goods are governed undemocratically—help us identify a set of goods that deserve a heightened degree of scrutiny and attention.
While this set of goods is necessarily fluid and contested—changing with social, economic, and technological conditions—it is not unbounded. Jacob T. Levy is correct to point out that a broad understanding of public goods risks blurring different types of goods (particularly network-effect goods such as telecom, inputs into communal identity such as monuments, and basic necessities such as housing or health care); it is very much the case that not all goods can or should be considered “public” in quite the same way.
The related concern that Levy raises is in part an understandable fear of collapsing the plurality of human life and memberships into some monolithic notion of “publicness.” Yet I am more sanguine than Levy here, in part because I see this broad moral notion of “publicness” operating differently. Rather than inexorably collapsing social and economic life into some monolithic, statist control over the market, a commitment to democratic public goods, defined broadly along the positive and negative dimensions, instead enables a plurality of life choices and opportunities. Goods such as housing and water are “public” precisely because they free individuals and communities to pursue more diverse paths.
This empowering, enabling aspect of public goods represents its own distinctly American tradition. Elaine Kamarck rightly notes that social policies are more durable when they can connect with deep traditions and shared values. But I would disagree with Kamarck that the only value capable of sustaining collective commitment to public goods and services is the concept of earned benefits. Certainly this is one aspect of American individualism, but we make a mistake if we overplay distinctions of deservingness in shaping our access to these goods.
Social Security and Medicare, which Kamarck cites as examples of individualism channeled into support for social policy, only came to be seen as shared, universal commitments through a concerted battle. They came to be universal precisely because post–New Deal bureaucrats employed ideas of equality and shared citizenship as a way to guide their decisions when administering those programs—and in some cases, resisting efforts to reassert racial disparities in access to benefits. Programs such as welfare, in contrast, gradually became more exclusionary precisely because administrators instead saw their work through the lens of deservingness and exclusion.
The productive tension between high moral aspirations and granular administrative innovations has helped fuel many of the greatest achievements of American democracy.
There is a different but equally American tradition in which to root this democratic conception of public goods: the conviction that we each deserve the opportunity to choose our own path. Threats to that freedom of self-authorship, whether originating from an oppressive state or a dominating private power, are threats to the American promise of freedom. This is the anxiety and aspiration that motivated Progressive Era innovators of public utility regulation. Thinkers such as Louis Brandeis and John Dewey saw themselves as pursuing reforms that would restore Founding-era values of individualism, liberty, and democracy.
This conception of public goods also suggests the importance of public policy in constructing access. Hardt suggests that we need not default to a statist notion of top-down control. While I share that view to an extent, regulation is key to overcoming many of the current barriers and ensuring fair and equal access—even if we aspire to manage public goods as a commons, rather than top-down state provision.
It remains the case, as Jacobs’s essay points out, that access to public goods is controlled by both governmental and private actors, and increasingly, private actors operate these goods with a profit motive. Guaranteeing equal access thus requires surfacing these realities of power and control, and devising rules to make certain that such control is not overly concentrated or exclusionary. As Jacobs notes, this means tackling the role of hedge funds in driving school privatization, or taking on the alliances between large corporations and governmental regulators that contributed to the disinvestment in clean water in Flint.
Raising incomes and reducing poverty, as Levy suggests, is not sufficient in this fight: without a closer look at exactly how public and private actors own, govern, and administer these services, we are likely to leave many constituencies excluded. Net neutrality is an instructive example here: maintaining equal access of content providers and users to the Internet requires nondiscrimination regulations to prevent providers from favoring some kinds of content or excluding some constituencies.
Like the Progressive Era reformers, we should be experimenting with a range of regulatory tools to ensure equal access. We might, for instance, require common carriage or nondiscrimination obligations, enforced by government oversight. Or we might require various modes of democratic accountability and participation in governance regimes. We might even create “public options,” state-chartered provisions that exist alongside private versions of the same good (much like Olmsted’s vision of Central Park and city property).
These solutions represent a more varied toolkit for securing common access to public goods, and they are the result of understanding public goods both as a moral obligation as well as an administrative challenge.
This brings us full circle, for it turns out that in order to achieve the high moral vision of inclusion we need to dig into the granular realities of private power and regulation. This is a challenge since it is hard to reveal the realities of hidden private control and even harder to mobilize reform around technical background rules. But historically this productive tension between high moral aspirations and granular administrative innovations has helped fuel many of the greatest achievements of American democracy, from municipal parks to Social Security. That is a powerful lesson—and inspiration—for our contemporary struggles.
K. Sabeel Rahman is a Four Freedoms Center Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, and in 2015 will be joining the faculty at Brooklyn Law School. His research focuses on democratic theory, participatory institutional design, and economic policy. He earned his JD from Harvard Law School and Ph.D in political theory from the Harvard Department of Government.
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