Blog 126. The uncommon commons.

We have commonly-held assumptions regarding common people, the common good, and especially the common ground. These ideas are drifting away. Even common-law marriage has morphed into being “hooked up.”

Senior citizens remember a time when we all shared social assumptions in common—unless you were of a minority, whence your assumptions were made for you not by you. “Common people” meant non-royalty, whence America was proud to be common. Government was intended for the “common good,” but now the good things are supposed to just “trickle down” when in fact most good things are trickling upward.

We need a re-awakening to the value of the commons. That’s the spaces we all occupy together—the roads, the parks, the public forests, the air, the rivers, the institutions.

As common ground, the national parks are no longer an untouchable sanctuary. Some 27 national monuments (parks in function) are under “review” because private rights can generate more wealth than the public good, and private motorcycles can provide more joy while spoiling the wild places.

The institutions we own together involve both common good and common ground. Among these are the schools, state hospitals, prisons, and the regulatory agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration, the state medical examiners, the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the various state environmental bureaus. Common institutions are rarely regarded with high priority. The best schools don’t appear in poor neighborhoods. The regulators are now nominated from among the regulated. In Texas, the Railroad Commission (RRC) regulates drilling, production, and pollution of petroleum. The RRC is elected, not appointed, but election to the RRC reportedly costs more than election to governor. Oil trickles up to money and money buys politics. That’s true in drugs, diapers, and deficit spending, too.

In America, marketing isn’t just a way of doing business. It’s an assumed way of life. And that’s a mistake.

Running things like a business is assumed to be better, more efficient—but that’s true only for things intended to make money. It’s not true for common things like universities, public schools, police forces, armies, roads, national laboratories, clean air, and perhaps even health care.

Health care is debatable. If you regard health care as a commodity, then indeed it should be run as a business, maximizing efficiency and profit. However, that is not the same as minimizing pain and suffering.

Roads, from highways to by-ways, form a common good. In some countries, railroads are also public facilities, and the people use them. That’s a lesson we have yet to learn as we build bigger highways to sell more cars and generate bigger traffic jams.

The mission of public education is not profit—or at least it shouldn’t be. Rather, the mission is to enable all citizens to develop productive, satisfying lives. Applying commercial performance standards to human development follows from a belief that students trained as automatons can best fulfill industrial needs. Education delivers a faulty product when it’s a low-budget item, ignored by commercially-oriented parents.

So what’s this all about?

Just this: A regulated free market is best for producing goods and services. If it isn’t regulated with rules of fair trade and public protection, it soon isn’t free.  It’s monopolistic.

For those things held in common—things other than marketable goods and services—operation as a business is just plain wrong. Common things should command budget priority, and exist under a common, firmly enforced expectation of honesty, integrity, and transparency.

After all, even a legislature can be made more efficient simply by abolishing it.