Goods Held In Common

Some readers may wonder what I mean by “goods we hold in common,” so let me explain.

If you’re reading this, you know English (or are using Google translate). Mom and dad taught you the basics: your ABCs and 123s. At school, teachers built on that foundation, honing and refining your grasp of the subtleties of the language: Five-paragraph essays, Romeo and Juliet, metaphors, analogies, and all that jazz.

Maybe your parents took you on strolls to the park on sunny afternoons. Along the way, they kept you from walking off the sidewalk and into the road. Before crossing, they taught you to look in both directions, or you might end up a hood ornament.

Safely arriving at your destination, you’d run to the sandbox with chain-linked swings with black rubber seats that seared your rump on hot days. Perhaps you were one of the courageous few who attempted to defy gravity by generating centripetal force through sheer power of will, never quite completing that mythic revolution.

Then you’d run to the fountain that flaccidly spattered lukewarm water that was somehow both foul and never enough.

Perched on your swing, you saw persnickety police hand jaywalking tickets to heedless high schoolers.

You went home to watch Maria do thankless chores for Oscar. When you were old enough for own chores, perhaps you took out the trash.

What relation does any of this have to the topic with which I began?

They’re all examples of goods we hold in common, goods that we share with others, that make possible our individual and communal flourishing, that enable our individuality amid sociality, and that require communal upkeep.

Languages and their literatures are such goods, as are the schools where they’re taught. Parks and swings, sidewalks and roads, water fountains and traffic laws, public television and garbage collection—these commonly held goods constitute, in part, our common good. They’re often products of communities working together over time and through various levels of governance. They require public investment and maintenance. Like Heidegger’s hammer, we tend not to think of them unless something goes wrong. But they are vital to our flourishing.

We could add libraries, fire engines, national parks, the military, public squares, courts, newspapers, radio frequencies, IP addresses, regulatory agencies, the Constitution, and much more to the list. Others might add religion, values, ideals, and the like. These are some of the things I have in mind when talking about goods held in common.

Unfortunately, too often I encounter folks who either don’t value these kinds of goods or don’t recognize them as such, byproducts attributable to the gobbling of society by market thinking and/or a desiccated social imagination. For these reasons, it’s imperative to highlight their importance and to defend them when necessary and to do so in a vocabulary fitting to the goods they are rather than to translate them into the economists’ language of costs and benefits.

I hope to do some of that work here.

 

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