Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash
Some of our greatest treasures are things we don't own...
... and never can: The beauties of nature, music, and art. The comfort of good relationships. The incredible riches of good health and an active mind.
Think of the value in public works: Libraries, public parks, the Golden Gate Bridge, highways and road maintenance crews, law enforcement, fire protection, water treatment and garbage removal, public schools and colleges, government-supported scientific and medical research, health departments.
These good things can be available to everyone. Yes, they're supported by property taxes, gasoline taxes, and sales taxes, but those are paid by everyone proportionally. The rich pay more because they buy and travel more, and their property is more valuable. The poor pay less for all the same reasons. But everybody contributes, so that everybody can benefit.
About public schools, US president John Adams wrote, "The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it." Public schools not only provide access to education, but opportunities for all children. While they are not perfect, in an all private-school world the wealthy would almost always fare better than everyone else. There's also evidence that schools would be more segregated, not just by race, but by special needs. Public schools, already providing excellent services to many children, could be even more successful if everyone recognized their stake in the outcome.
Public parks have been called "our open air living rooms." They are a vital part of everyday life, especially in cities. Playgrounds, picnic spaces, sports facilities, and hiking trails are invaluable resources, but so are mature trees and shrubs, which clean the air and refresh our spirits. Public gardens and memorials are rejuvenating and instructive. And then there are all the beautiful state and national parks, from beaches to ancient redwood groves to Yosemite's granite domes and waterfalls, the Grand Canyon, and, oldest of all, Yellowstone. We share these wonderful parks with visitors from all over the world.
Public spaces are literal common ground. They strengthen our sense of community and let us gather together face to face. When all interaction shifts to impersonal forums like talk radio or web sites, we splinter into smaller, more insulated groups.
Democracy loses its meaning if citizens don't have any shared spaces or services.
In a culture that continues to become more and more commercialized, where money and property are being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands (think, for example, of how much of all media is now controlled by Disney), public spaces and services that are available to all citizens have become an even greater asset.
Defunding public libraries, parks, museums, and transportation services might save local governments some money, but at what cost to the quality of life for the people and the community?
Libraries, for example, have shown that they are highly adaptable, changing to reflect new technology and community needs. Libraries offer not only print books, e-books, music, movies, and games that can be freely borrowed, but provide computers and internet access, story times and summer reading clubs for children, adult literacy, ESL, and citizenship classes, and resources for job seekers and entrepreneurs. Some provide maker spaces and meeting spaces, even concert spaces that can be used free of charge. Libraries are safe, welcoming places where community members can meet, learn, and socialize. That they charge no entrance or user fees is the beauty, and the challenge, of the public library.
Privatizing everything means commercializing it.
We don't want public libraries to be replaced by Amazon bookstores (as advocated by an opinion piece published in Forbes magazine). We don't want public schools to be replaced by for-profit training centers. We don't want public parks to be replaced by Six Flags or McDonald's play areas, or all gardens to be walled off like private golf courses. We don't want to rely on bottled water because city water treatment plants have been shuttered. We don't want to hire security because there are no more police. We don't want our children to be forced into debt because community colleges and state universities have disappeared. And we definitely don't want irreplaceable natural wonders to be lost to exploitation and "development."
Because of public works, we don't sacrifice quality of life if we own less and share more. Minimalists celebrate public works.
We may "buy" these treasures when we pay taxes, but they don't become our personal property. And because we join with everyone else in paying for them, we create so much more than we ever could on our own. Rugged individualism is all very well, but life is richer when we share.