The Public Good [2]

drinking water

Photo by Kobu Agency on Unsplash

American schoolkids learn that their country has a republican form of government, which means everybody doesn’t get to vote on everything; we vote for people who do the voting for us.[1] But there’s more to the word republic than that:

republic (n.):  c. 1600, “state in which supreme power rests in the people via elected representatives,” from Middle French république (15c.), from Latin respublica (ablative republica) “the common weal, a commonwealth, state, republic,” literally res publica “public interest, the state,” from res “affair, matter, thing” (see re) + publica, fem. of publicus “public” (see public (adj.)). Republic of letters attested from 1702.

Etymology Online.

Publica (the people, the state) + Res (affair, matter, thing) = “the people’s stuff.” The republican state holds the people’s stuff in trust, and its elected representatives, as trustees, administer it for the public benefit. That’s the plan, anyway. A more elegant term for “the public’s stuff” is “commonwealth”:

commonwealth (n.):  mid-15c., commoun welthe, “a community, whole body of people in a state,” from common (adj.) + wealth (n.). Specifically “state with a republican or democratic form of government” from 1610s. From 1550s as “any body of persons united by some common interest.” Applied specifically to the government of England in the period 1649-1660, and later to self-governing former colonies under the British crown (1917). In the U.S., it forms a part of the official name of Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Virginia, Kentucky, and Puerto Rico but has no special significance.

Etymology Online

Several online searches turned up a surprisingly long and illuminating list of things that are or used to be considered part of the common wealth trust portfolio. For example:

  • education
  • news
  • law
  • governmental administrative functions
  • healthcare
  • childcare
  • clean water
  • clean air
  • certain interior spaces
  • certain exterior spaces — e.g. parks
  • natural wonders
  • shoreline and beaches
  • mail and home/rural delivery service
  • trash removal
  • public toilets
  • sewage processing
  • food, clothing, and shelter
  • heat and lights
  • streets, roads, highways
  • public transportation
  • freight shipping
  • telephone and telegraph
  • pest control
  • use of public lands/wilderness access
  • the “right to roam”
  • the “right to glean” unharvested crops
  • the right to use fallen timber for firewood
  • defense
  • police and fire
  • handicapped access

Some people argue for the inclusion of additional, more contemporary items on the list:

  • information
  • internet access
  • net neutrality
  • open source software
  • email
  • fax
  • computers
  • cell phones
  • the “creative commons”
  • racial, gender, national, and other forms of equality
  • birth control
  • environmental protection
  • response to climate change

The res publica is made up of those goods, services, and places everybody is entitled to just by being human, or by being a citizen or member of the applicable socio-cultural institution. Somebody’s got to administer all that, and somebody’s got to pay for it. Plus, as we saw last time, there are competing private interests as well.

You’ve heard of technological singularity — the point at which technology overtakes human ability — e.g., artificial intelligence and machine learning. Nowadays, administration of both private interests and the commonwealth has been delegated to a near-universal economic singularity:  the “free” market, carried out in the form of American-style capitalism, as also exported to the rest of the world. Superstar Italian-American economist Mariana Mazzucato[2] thinks this practice has skewed the private/public balance to the point where the commonwealth has been eliminated from policy-making:

“[Government is] an actor that has done more than it has been given credit for, and whose ability to produce value has been seriously underestimated – and this has in effect enabled others to have a stronger claim on their wealth creation role. But it is hard to make the pitch for government when the term ‘public value’ doesn’t even currently exist in economics. It is assumed that value is created in the private sector; at best, the public ‘enable’ [that privately created] value.

“There is of course the important concept of ‘public goods’ in economics — goods whose production benefits everyone, and which hence require public provision since they are under-produced by the private sector.

“… the story goes [that] government should simply focus on creating the conditions that allow businesses to invest and on maintaining the fundamentals for a prosperous economy:  the protection of private property, investments in infrastructure, the rule of law, an efficient patenting system. After that, it must get out of the way. Know its place. Not interfere too much. Not regulate too much. Importantly, we are told, government does not ‘create value’; it simply ‘facilitates’ its creation and — if allowed — redistributes value through taxation. Such ideas are carefully crafted, eloquently expressed and persuasive. This has resulted in the view that pervades society today:  government is a drain on the energy of the market, and ever-present threat to the dynamism of the private sector.”

The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths (Rev. 2018) See also The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy (2018)

Prof. Mazzucato isn’t the only one concerned about this. When Occupy Wall Street puts up its “We are the 99%” sign, when voters support populist politicians[3], when French farmers don yellow vests and riot in Paris, when Malala Yousafzai advocates for educational opportunity, when Greta Thunberg scolds world leaders on climate change… all these are advancing their own responses to the current public/private balance.

In the search for remedies, the younger generation is more likely than their elders to reject populist nationalist politics and private capitalist solutions, and to push instead for an expanded commonwealth administered under a new version of an economic system many of their elders consider an economic dirty word.

More on that next time.

[1] Pure democracy — all those ballot initiatives — has joined republican lawmaking since California’s 1978 Proposition 13.

[2] The Times called her “the world’s scariest economist.”

[3] Here’s a list from the BBC of European nationalist politicians.

Author: Kevin Rhodes

Kevin Rhodes draws insight and perspective from his prior career in law, business, and consulting, from his studies in economics, psychology, neuroscience, entrepreneurship, and technology, and from personal life experience.

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