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Monday, October 20, 2008

Public Goods

A park is only a park if it is owned by a community. Without the people within it, a park is not a park. A park owned by a single person is a garden, but you do not go to the garden, or take your kids to the garden, or go play soccer in the garden.

You go to the park.

Here in St. Louis we have a park we call the “botanical gardens” but really, it’s a park. You go to the botanical gardens, you take your kids to the botanical gardens. Admittedly, they probably wouldn’t let you play soccer there, but it’s still a park. There’s people there. You’re never alone (unless you sneak in after dark. Then you are, and it’s more than a little bit creepy, too.

I bring this to your attention because today I’d like to discuss a little piece of communism that has crept into our lives, beloved by us all without our knowing. It is the public good.

A public good is something owned by a community and maintained by a community, intended for community use. It could be something as simple as a Television that all denizens of a home share between them, rather than buying a television for each person in the house. It could be something as large as a lake or as essential as a Levy. It could be something as standard, as obvious, as necessary to a community as a park. What community is a community without a park? Sure, there are rural areas where they don’t have parks, but that’s because the entire community is in a park, of sorts. They don’t have to protect a little pocket of nature, because nature is all around them. Even there, though, you find parks. You find them behind school-houses, where the enclosed green and playground equipment form a safe environment for children to run around in, free of the less friendly parts of nature, like poison ivy or rattlesnakes. You find them near government buildings, and sometimes you find them demarcated simply by a fence that says “such and such national park” but which means “The stuff on that side of this fence is nature, but the stuff on this other side is a national park.”

You may be wondering, at this juncture, what my point is. After all, who could argue that parks are bad? That would be silly. Everyone loves parks.

Which is more or less the point. People who don’t use parks, or have kids, or play soccer, or even particularly like trees, they all pay for the park. No one questions whether they should pay for the park, they just do. No one asks why they pay for the Levy, that’s obvious. No one asks why they pay the salaries of the park rangers in the national preserves, they just do. If they get upset it’s over not being able to mine for or build inside the fence. They don’t mind paying for nature preserves they just argue over where they should be.

But when someone gets an unemployment check, all the world is torn asunder.

Welfare, too, is a public good of a sort. It isn’t visible, like a park or a wildlife preserve, but it’s every bit as essential as the levy. You just don’t know how important it is to pay for welfare until the levy breaks, not to lay on the metaphor too thick. When you need it, suddenly it’s important. But it’s more than that, too. When people need it, not even you, and it isn’t there, then that’s a catastrophe for them and for you. They die, your streets are lined with dead bodies. They starve, your streets are lined with beggars. They get angry, your door is beaten down by an angry mob. They get angry and hungy?

Let’s just say that most of European history can be explained by the lack of a welfare system. When you have no safety net, you have nowhere to go but to arms. Everyone would rather have a peaceful, nonviolent way to get food, but if they don’t have it, then they’re just going to resort to the other way. We all would, given the need. Welfare isn’t only in place to protect the mob from you, it’s in place to protect you from the angry mob. It is the levy that stands between your wealth and someone realizing that they have nothing left to lose.

So no more of this talking about “doing away with” welfare. That’s stupid. Do you do away with a levy? No. Do you do away with a park? No. Welfare needs to be repaired. The system is broken, the bureaucracy is bloated, but we can’t do away with it, even if we just want it gone so we can rebuild it. It is a levy. If you want a new levy, you build it before you demolish the old one. If you want a new welfare system, the same rules apply.


The next few days may be somewhat dry. A good friend of mine is writing a guest article which should segue well into the Israel question and give us all some food for thought. I'll try to post a little something every day until he's ready though, even if it's only a photograph or a link to something entertaining.

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