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Me the people: public good, private greed

A few days ago, I decided to celebrate the beautiful summer morning by taking my dog, Chance, to the off-leash park at Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis.

A few days ago, I decided to celebrate the beautiful summer morning by taking my dog, Chance, to the off-leash park at Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis.

The off-leash area is a well-planned and orderly place (or as orderly as a place can be where dogs gather in numbers). There are a handful of eminently reasonable rules and a scattering of clear, easy-to-understand signs outlining those rules and the more general “responsibilities of dog owners.”

Chance had a wonderful time splashing around with a whirling pack of fellow canines in the pools of water that have overrun the river banks. Like us, dogs are pack animals. Sure, they can survive physically if isolated from fellow members of their species, but, once again, like us, they can only thrive with regular access to the society of their kind.

During our visit, I was struck again by what an amazing place Minnehaha Falls Park is – and other places like it in the Twin Cities. How unlikely that right here in the middle of an urban area of 3 million people, 200 acres were set aside and more or less preserved – with minimal improvements to facilitate use — its ravines, and forested bluffs, and broad river gap and, of course, breathtaking waterfall available for visitation by anyone with minimal charge. Or, in the case of somebody who walks to the park, no charge at all.

And once again, as at such moments, I was struck by how lucky we are. Lucky that our American ancestors had the foresight – and the collective will – to forego the immediate gain that might have been realized by a terminal exploitation of the natural resources of Minnehaha Falls Park to create a space for everyone, whether a local resident or visitor from afar, whether a citizen of Minnesota or even of the United States or not.

And it occurred to me again that if the current objectives espoused by many of today’s American politicians had prevailed between the end of the 19th and the middle of the 20th century, if the political leadership of that day had demanded that public policy reflect Ayn Rand-ian tropes of makers and takers, moochers and producers, there never would have been anything like Minnehaha Falls for us to enjoy in 2013.

And that’s not all. There would be no public parks of any kind, not to mention public schools, public libraries, national forests or National Parks – the last, one of the true glories of the American experiment. And forget about a social safety net, such as it is in the United States today. Forget Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, paid sick leave and vacation, food stamps – and certainly public employee unions. We’d have none of these things.

In fact, if we were starting from scratch today, it would be virtually unthinkable even to imagine creating any of these things. The whole country, rather than just pockets of it like central Florida or Rick Perry’s Texas, would be one giant, unregulated, unzoned, anarchic mess completely owned and despoiled by criminals like the Koch brothers, rather than simply threatened by their insatiable greed and sociopathy.

This, I want to hasten to emphasize, is not a plea simply for more or bigger government. On surveys testing political leanings, I place at the far end of libertarian leftist. Unaccountable government power, as the NSA scandal demonstrates, is not a good thing.

But this is a plea for a government commensurate with maintaining public order and, just as vital, promoting the public good. A government accountable to the citizens whose interests it represents. A government charged with protecting us against the accumulation of unaccountable power by anyone, whether in the public or the private sector.

This is also a passionate rejection of Ronald Reagan’s brazenly cynical claim that government is never the solution, but always the problem (Ronald Reagan, whose political career was launched on the platform provided him by GE, a company that has greatly benefited from government research, contracts, tax and fiscal policies, and outright corporate welfare). It is an even more passionate rejection of Margaret Thatcher’s Hobbesian claim that there is “no such thing” as society, just families and individuals trying to make their way in the world.

No, Maggie, may your soul roast in hell. That’s simply not true. There is definitely “such a thing” as society. As much or more so than those dogs splashing around at Minnehaha Falls, we human beings are social creatures, the primatologist’s axiom “one chimp is no chimp” as applicable to us as it is to our primate relatives.

A high percentage of English settlers came to North America as members of communities – not as rapacious individuals out to get whatever they could for themselves and screw everyone else. Certainly, those settlers came looking for opportunities, but if we examine closely the full range of opportunities they sought, we see that one of the most important was a place where their communities – their proto-societies – could flourish collectively.

Those settlers came here and found native peoples who also had a highly developed communal sense of shared resources and responsibility. In envisioning the kind of government he wanted to see established in the newly formed United States of America, Benjamin Franklin, among others, drew upon the political system evolved by the Iroquois tribes with its consensus-based, decision-making process.

And as a group, the Founders, despite their mistakes in assuming that slavery would fade away of its own accord, for all their miscalculations in forging a system of checks-and-balances that at times enables a minority to paralyze progress, did not launch their experiment in nation-building in order to create a dog-eat-dog, winner-take-all, fight-to-the-finish cage match.

On the contrary. Theirs was another step along a path of political and social evolution away from that kind of winner-take-all system of governance. Theirs was part of an evolution that had begun a couple of centuries earlier in Europe and whose goal was to abolish the ancién regime model of a state in which there were only two classes, rulers and subjects, and where everything – and everyone – was owned by rulers who “governed” with absolute impunity. Theirs was an attempt to create a kind of nation in which there would no rulers, no underclass of exploited subjects, a country in which the will of the citizens prevails through the work of their elected representatives.

This has zero to do with the stunted-development ideologies coughed up by Paul Ryan and the Tea Party. Those are not representative of traditional values. They are, in fact, a reaction to the very kind of anxiety spawned among certain people by a nation whose most cherished tradition is not to stand still and divvy everything up between winners and losers, but to keep moving forward, never stopping, in the effort to create “a more perfect union.”

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