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A Commons Problem

Public resources won't be adequately protected by those with private interests.

Thomas Jefferson b Rembrant Peale (c.1805) National Archive/Getty

In his 2015 book The Republic of Conscience, former U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Gary Hart identifies what may be the central dynamic of American political and economic history: the struggle to accommodate the interests of a commonwealth with a capitalist economic system. “There has never been a serious effort to convert the United States to socialism or widespread public ownership,” he points out. “There have been continuing efforts, even today, to convert much of our publicly owned resources to private ownership and development.”

As Hart explains, we enjoy two different kinds of public resources—natural resources, such as land, water, and wilderness; and built public infrastructure, such as transportation systems, recreation areas and facilities, and public schools. The question of which resources should be administered by public agencies on behalf of everyone and which should be subject to the private interests of corporations and shareholders is and will remain passionately contested in politics. Hart argues that the citizens of a commonwealth are obliged to preserve public resources not only for their own benefit but for the sake of future generations. “The charters of few if any private corporations include concern for the well-being of future generations,” he comments, rather bitterly.

Hart observes elsewhere that the United States is heir to two distinct and venerable politico-philosophical traditions, that of liberalism and that of republicanism (which is often referred to nowadays as “civic republicanism,” to avoid any confusion with the Republican Party). The central focus of the liberal tradition is on the rights of individual citizens to be free of interference by government in their private affairs. The republican tradition, on the other hand, concerns itself with the public arena, and the right—which is also an obligation—of citizens to participate fully in the political affairs of their community in determining its collective destiny. This republican version of freedom has been called “public liberty.”

Many commentators have considered the two contrasting philosophies to be incommensurable—so divergent in their essentials, in other words, as to resist being judged by the same standard. Thomas Jefferson accepted John Locke’s thesis that people possessed the grand, overarching, natural rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” Hart writes, as well as more mundane ones such as the rights of speech, assembly, and worship, and to a jury trial by peers. But Jefferson added to that liberal stance the republican stipulation that such rights would never be secure without active citizen involvement in the governmental process.

What light could Jefferson’s—and Hart’s—hybrid philosophy cast on the political situation in the United States today? First of all, the line between the public and private domains, between the search for the common good and the quest for private gain, is not only being eroded under the Trump presidency but nearly obliterated. Trump regards the presidency as a business opportunity for him and his family, not a chance to render public service to the nation. Under his administration, there has been a mad rush to turn over invaluable public resources, such as national park land, for private exploitation. His Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, is committed to privatizing public education throughout the country, regardless of the miserable failure of charter schools sponsored by her and her family in their home state of Michigan.

America has increasingly come to define itself as a democracy rather than a republic. What’s more, Americans interpret “democracy” in increasingly narrow terms, as almost a synonym for capitalism, and as indicating a regime that functions primarily as a guarantor of rights. It is noteworthy, therefore, that President Trump has called into question America’s most sacrosanct right, the right to free speech embodied in the First Amendment, in his relentless attacks on the press, and that the Republican Party (so-called) has adopted as one of its foremost political tactics a campaign to suppress the voting rights of various minority groups.

None of this will surprise adherents of republican philosophy. Republican theorist Quentin Skinner has written, “The reason for wishing to bring the republican vision of politics back ... is simply because it conveys a warning which ... we can hardly afford to ignore: unless we place our duties before our rights, we must expect to find our rights themselves undermined.” Liberal principles alone are not sufficient to thwart the designs of a would-be tyrant.