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Front Page » June 3, 2003 » Opinion » What about the public good?
Published 3,974 days ago

What about the public good?


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By PAUL T. MERO
Sutherland Institute

In light of the growing interest in revisiting the objectives of state transportation policy with regard to light rail, the Legacy Highway, expansions of I-15, etc., it would do us well to have a thorough and honest discussion of just what constitutes the "public good."

The "public good" generally identified with helping those less fortunate than us should not be confused with an economist's definition of "public goods." The latter are the few necessary resources (such as water) or services (such as national defense) that benefit everyone and cannot easily or efficiently be provided in the private sector for the benefit of all.

The former is more of an emotive sentiment. The "public good" typically means that we find ourselves willing to give up something (i.e., time, money, resources, etc.) to benefit someone else. We honor it because we recognize that we have a common interest in making sure that our neighbors and their children less fortunate than others have a higher quality of life. The sentiment is both spiritual and humane.

But something has happened to this pure sentiment. It has been hijacked.

The public good sentiment has become institutionalized in the sense that "public" now means "government." This was not always so. Public libraries, created to benefit less fortunate citizens that could not afford to buy books, were once entirely funded privately. Over time, citizens came to agree that tax dollars should be used to supplement private funding. Today, tax dollars are nearly the entire source of funding for public libraries. Public now means government.

This has led naturally to politicization of the sentiment. Nearly any cause with sufficient popular support, relying on the coercive power of the state, can be justified as a public good. We have public utilities and education. We have public jobs programs and welfare. We even have public golf courses and recreation clubs. All of these services can be, and historically have been, provided through private means. But today we commonly accept them as public goods serving the public good.

Furthering this evolution, our public good sentiment has become homogenized. In other words, what was once an emotive sentiment to help only the less fortunate among us now is used to justify its coercive application upon all. Public education is a perfect example. Initially created to serve only the less fortunate, public education is now the master of us all.

Along with its accepted benefits, this evolution has had its negative effect on society. It has weakened our revered culture of self-reliance and it has politicized nearly everything we do and are. In fact, we might ask ourselves just what are the limitations of public good theory. Is there any human activity out of its seductive reach?

Back to transportation. Clearly, community growth patterns and the smooth flow of commerce must be accommodated throughout the state. We have highways and roads because we need them. To a large degree they represent a transference of communication throughout society. But would it surprise anyone to know that our highways and roads were once privately built and maintained, and that even today many highways and roads throughout the nation continue to exist this way?

We should not make the mistake of confusing a service that benefits the public with being a "public good." Roads benefit the public to be sure, just as grocery stores do, but governments are not required to create either. Has anyone heard of a toll road? Toll roads, used all throughout this country, were initially created by private companies. It was a business and a most appreciated business at that!

The welcomed imposition of the federal highway system should not confuse or distort our state transportation policies. As we debate the expansion of light rail and I-15, or discuss the creation of new commuter rails, it would serve us well to place this important issue of transportation in historical and market contexts.

Public transportation was meant to serve those among us who cannot drive or who cannot afford to drive. The UTA bus service is very effective in helping these people. On the other hand, UTA's light rail, while fun, really only serves commuters who can provide transportation for themselves.

Transportation debates should be honest and not alone justified by warm and fuzzy expressions like the "public good" when, in reality, some proposals are politicized and self-serving while others are simply cross-motivated.


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