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The Decline of the Public Good

Meryl Streep’s eery reincarnation of Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady” brings to mind Thatcher’s most famous quip, “there is no such thing as ‘society.’” None of the dwindling herd of Republican candidates has quoted her yet but they might as well considering their unremitting bashing of everything public.

What defines a society is a set of mutual benefits and duties embodied most visibly in public institutions — public schools, public libraries, public transportation, public hospitals, public parks, public museums, public recreation, public universities, and so on.

Public institutions are supported by all taxpayers, and are available to all. If the tax system is progressive, those who better off (and who, presumably, have benefitted from many of these same public institutions) help pay for everyone else.

“Privatize” means pay-for-it-yourself. The practical consequence of this in an economy whose wealth and income are now more concentrated than any time in 90 years is to make high-quality public goods available to fewer and fewer.

Much of what’s called “public” is increasingly a private good paid for by users — ever-higher tolls on public highways and public bridges, higher tuitions at so-called public universities, higher admission fees at public parks and public museums.

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