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December 15, 2010

on public work and alienation

Neighbors love a local stream and are concerned about its health. Thanks to them, a pedestrian footbridge is built over it to provide access and to reduce car pollution. It doesn't matter much whether people cause the bridge it to appear by lobbying the local government to build it, persuading a private company to donate it, or physically erecting it themselves. So long as the bridge was their idea and the fruit of their collective discussion and effort, several advantages are likely to follow: 1) Because they designed it, it will meet their needs and reflect their talents. 2) Because they made it, they will feel a sense of ownership and will be motivated to protect it. 3) Because they are formally equal as neighbors, not ranked in a hierarchy, each will feel a sense of dignity and status. 4) In shaping their public world together, they will gain a feeling of satisfaction and agency that is available nowhere else. And 5) By combining discussion with collaborative action, they will develop skills, relationships, and political power that can transfer to other settings.

None of these outcomes is guaranteed, nor would I ignore the possibility of arguments, tensions, and downright failures. But some of the advantages are impossible to obtain in other ways.

The bridge is just a metaphor. We don't need to burden the earth with unlimited numbers of new structures. Restoring nature is equally valuable, as are various forms of non-tangible and non-permanent goods: events, performances, ideas, cultural innovations.

I don't think that who owns the good is of fundamental importance. There are five basic options: no ownership at all (which is the case with the high seas), government ownership, an individual owner, a for-profit corporate owner, or a nonprofit corporate owner. These legal arrangements are relevant, but they do not determine whether people can do public work together. Other factors, such as motivations, norms, expectations, and rewards, interact with the legal status of goods in various complex ways.

Thus a great example of a publicly created space might be a coffee house, papered with posters for local events, populated by a cross-section of the community. That coffee house may belong to and profit one person, who (along with his or her customers) can rightly feel responsible for building a common space. Meanwhile, a government-owned underpass nearby may be the most forbidding and hostile, anti-public space in town.

As Elinor Ostrom noted in her Nobel Prize Lecture, how people manage a common-pool resource depends in part on whether they are organized as (for instance) “private water companies, city utilities, private oil companies, and local citizens meeting in diverse settings.” Their behavior differs, too, depending on the rules of the game: for example “when they meet monthly in a private water association, when they face each other in a courtroom, and when they go to the legislature.” Despite these differences, Ostrom and her colleagues have begun to build one overall framework for understanding the management of common-pool resources--a framework that tends to downplay the dichotomy between state and private sector that seems fundamental in other theories. One could say that in this framework, citizens are at the center and they have available a plurality of institutional forms and combinations of forms.

Still, I think there is a sense of "public" that makes the creation of public goods particularly precious. My imaginary bridge and coffee house may have different legal status, but they share the advantages listed in the first paragraph above. The outputs of government bureaucracies and private corporations usually lack those advantages, which is why people are alienated from the world that those entities jointly create. Governments can incorporate public creativity and work into their operations, and that would be the best way to make people like the government more. Unfortunately, it is not the main trend in public administration anywhere in the developed world.

December 15, 2010 2:42 PM | category: populism | Comments



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