Privatizing the Public is a Bad Idea, for We Can’t Reap What We Did Not Sow

Pickle barrels.

Pickle Barrel at Katzinger’s in Columbus.

How many articles and studies detail the dangers and detriments of valuing quarterly profits over long-term investments? How many times have we, the American people, been warned that our sense of “the public,” “the common” is too thin? Or, in the colloquialism my late father repeated often in reference to society where taking is valued more than giving: “You can’t keep taking pickles out of the barrel without putting some back in.”

The US has been privatizing public spaces and services at least since foisting the laws of private property on lands indigenous people once held in common. In the past century, FDR’s New Deal programs—during which the nation’s individual liberty-loving, small government side was muted by the needs for work, food, housing, rationing, sacrifice, war-time utilization of private businesses, and other social programs—was not universally loved.

Some corporate interests at the time worked vigorously to overturn or undermine the “socialist” New Deal, and some Christian leaders aligned with them on that subversion (that story is well-told in Kevin Kruse’s One Nation Under God).

And then there was the Reagan Revolution, during which many Americans were convinced or reinforced in their belief that free market capitalism and unregulated business is good, while anything the government does outside of national defense, enforcing contracts, and regulating people’s sex lives and women’s bodies is bad. Outside these matters, government is incompetent.

How’s that working for us when we need a robust sense of “the public?” It is as wise as not installing fire alarms until after a fire.

Can you imagine the Interstate Highway Project today? Can you imagine the private-public partnership that produced all the inland shoreline in Oklahoma and state parks today? Can we who are Red State residents really imagine a healthcare system that serves all our people?

Can we imagine a well-funded, high quality, effective system of pre-school through 12th grade public education? Can we imagine a national system for election security? Can we imagine a humanely and sustainably produced and safe food system? Can we imagine our government ensuring that we all have clean air, clean water, and healthy soil—wherever we live?

Can we imagine a government pandemic disease response team and system that can be called on at a moment’s notice to move from active-watch to action mode? (By the way, a prescient TED Talk that Bill Gates gave in 2015 is absolutely spot-on regarding the attention the federal government did not give before the present moment.)

When we shrink public goods and spaces by privatizing them, we reap the consequences. When we need a strong public response, when we need corporations to cooperate and citizens to act like citizens rather than angry consumers who are being denied their right to party on St. Paddy’s Day or buy a shopping cart full of toilet paper, we reap the whirlwind of what we’ve planted. Me. Mine. My right. My family. And let’s add the “protection” of me and mine with more guns; gun and ammo sales are surging.

Right now, we need “we,” “us,” “our,” “citizens,” “neighbors,” “public,” “common,” “mutual rights,” and responsibilities paired with rights (rights are meant to allow us to fulfill responsibilities).

The individual is a fiction or, according to Aristotle, a malformed being when disconnected from others. Yet, global capitalism with the elevation of the free consumer over every other understanding of what humanity is, is based on this fiction. That fiction crumbles in moments like the present when our attention turns to the basics of our connections to each other: holding each other, breathing the same air, sharing a meal or a drink, watching a play or a movie, standing in line at the grocery store, going to work or school, attending worship.

Religions, overall, have it right: persons are formed in communities. If we want strong persons, attend to strong communities.

Maybe the present crisis will motivate the American public, at least temporarily, to behave as if religions have it right. Our nation’s sense of the common good, of robust public life and spaces, and of the need to have trustworthy and competent government officials at all levels of society are too thin currently and do not express the basic truth of human nature. We are people first and persons second.


PHOTO CREDIT: Pickle Barrel at Katzinger’s in Columbus by stu_spivack