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Commons Has Expanded, Not Shrunk, Over Past 200 Years

Public water systems, public education, public libraries and public roads are modern innovations

Alex Marshall is the author of The Surprising Design of Market Economies, which debunks the myth of the “free market” by showing how markets could not exist without governments to create structures that make ownership of property possible and practical. He is a Senior Fellow at The Regional Plan Association in New York. For more information see: alex@rpa.org, alexmarshall.org and @amcities

Lafayette High School, Buffalo’s oldest public school still operating, was built in 1901, the time when universal public education was finally taking root in America. (Photo by Onasill under a Creative Commons license from flickr.com)

It more than a century for public schools systems to be established everywhere, from 1779 when they were unsuccessfully proposed by Thomas Jefferson as governor, to universal education by the early 20th century.

If you had asked the person next to you in New York or virtually any other city for a drink of water in 1825,they would have had a predictable response: go buy your own. It would be like today asking the person next to you for a Coke.

Water, safe and dependable water, was a private responsibility. Sure there may have been some public fountains or known springs, but the burden was on the individual or the family to obtain such a thing.

That’s why the proposal to create a public water system in New York City, which finally opened in 1842 after a half century of debate, was so controversial. Why should it be my responsibility, said many, to quench my neighbors thirst? It was only after a cholera epidemic and a fire that political will expanded to create one of the nation’s first public water system. And of course when it opened, it made the city not only healthier and happier, but more prosperous.

The expression “The Commons” is usually used to mean public resources that are available to all for free or for a moderate charge. What I didn’t realize until after I finished writing my latest book, The Surprising Design of Market Economies is that the definition of “The Commons” has changed over time. While it has shrunk in some categories, on the whole the definition of the Commons has expanded over the last two centuries. That’s something to take satisfaction in.

And just what are The Commons today? Public education is a Commons. Although we have furious debates about charter schools versus vouchers versus teacher unions, no one that I know of is arguing that every child should not be taught to read and write at state expense. That was not the case in the mid 19th century, when there were furious debates over the radical notion that government should pay for every child’s education. It was not until the early 20th century that every state in the union paid for and required every child to attend school.

Drinking water and adequate sewage are a Commons. Although there are bills attached to these services, their collective nature, usually run by municipal government, qualifies them as the Commons.

Public libraries are a Commons. Just think about it. Anyone can walk into a library and get a book, for free, paid for at public expense. Before mega mogul Andrew Carnegie kickstarted the process by establishing thousands of public libraries at his expense, public libraries were rare. More common were private lending libraries, to which a subscription fee was charged. Now libraries are as American as apple pie, even though they are almost pure socialism in their makeup.

Police departments, believe it or not, are the Commons. Before the 1850s, public, uniformed and professional police forces were rare. Night watchmen and private security guards generally ensured the peace. While the creation of municipal police forces had a dark side – they were sometimes used to suppress labor and political protesters– it also had a light side. Streets were safer. Would anyone want to abolish public police forces?

The street and highway system is of course, perhaps the biggest Commons. Paid for almost entirely with taxes, they are open to all, generally without charge. That they have become too dominated by cars is a point of view I share, but we should not forget the estimable fact that they exists at all.

I’ve concluded that we progress as a society by debating and deciding what are “The Commons.” These debates are long. It more than a century for public schools systems to be established everywhere, from 1779 when they were unsuccessfully proposed by Thomas Jefferson as governor, to universal education by the early 20th century.

Right now we are debating whether health care should be part of “The Commons.” That’s why the debate is so passionate. With the passage of Obamacare, we are moving to join every other industrialized country where people have a right to medical care, just as they do to schooling. This is a good thing. In some other countries, food and housing have become part of the Commons. Maybe we’ll get there someday.

The Commons should not be seen in opposition to the private marketplace, which is also created by government. Rather, the Commons and the Marketplace are complementary. People who have clean water, who can read and who are healthy, are better workers and business owners. And it makes sense that as a society becomes richer, it employs more of its resources to ensure basic services for its members.

The Commons are not stable. There have been moves to privatize public water systems as well as public roads. While every case is different, in general these moves should be viewed with suspicion and scrutinized carefully because the achievement of public systems is no small thing. They should be valued.

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