I would not be happy if I could not own private property. I am glad to possess my own wool shirts, my vehicles and especially my real estate.
I lived as a tenant in other people’s buildings for about 20 years after I graduated from high school. I liked most of my landlords and usually was able to improve their properties while I lived there. But inevitably there were restrictions on what I could do in my home. Disagreements arose from this sharing of responsibility between owner and renter.
When we finally were able to buy our own house, our responsibilities increased enormously, as every homeowner knows. But we could make every choice: where to plant trees; what color to paint; what to fix; how to remodel. Our home could become an expression of our values and tastes.
Homeowners cannot do anything they want. Local ordinances and zoning regulations, as well as the need to keep peace with neighbors, put limits on private property owners. Various state laws about sewage and waterfront limit our freedom to do whatever we want with our property on the outskirts of a tiny village in northern Wisconsin. I’m okay with that.
In fact, I help to enforce some restrictions in my own neighborhood, which is a historic district in Jacksonville, IL. Owners of historic homes need to get permission from the Historical Preservation Commission if they want to change the way their homes appear from the street. The purpose is to preserve the historic character of the neighborhood, so that future owners and future generations can enjoy the increasingly rare sight of streets filled with historic buildings. The job of the HPC is to prevent a current homeowner from making poor decisions which will never be undone.
Exactly where to draw the line between private and public is sometimes contentious. About one-fifth of Americans live in developments where homeowners’ associations can specify paint colors, parking spaces and even the size of pets.
I also love public property. Americans use public property every day. Every time we get into a car, stroll along the sidewalk, cross a bridge, or take public transportation, we benefit from public property. Our national park system, thousands of rivers and streams, picnic areas, bridges, airports, train stations, and roads are owned by us all and are run in our collective interest. One of those interests is affordability. A pass to all 2000 recreation sites owned by the federal government for a full year costs $80. That covers everyone in a car. Compare that to one day at Disney World, where even 3-year-olds pay over $100.
Public property is a political issue: Democrats want to maintain and expand public services and Republicans want to turn public resources and services into private property.
The Republican platform for the 2016 election proposed cutting federal support for transportation projects that were not about cars: bike-share programs, sidewalk improvements, recreational trails, landscaping, historical renovations, ferry boats. Republicans proposed privatizing rail service among northeastern cities. Just before the 2016 election, Trump proposed massive infrastructure projects, which would effectively privatize roads and bridges. Republicans tried to privatize Medicare in their 2018 budget proposals, and introduced a bill to privatize air traffic control.
The Trump administration, led by Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education, is reducing the regulation of private, for-profit universities, despite their abysmal record of misleading students about the likelihood of getting jobs after “graduation”. DeVos has long supported using public funds to support private schools through voucher programs. Her family spent millions of dollars in a failed effort to convince Michigan voters to support a voucher program.
The vast resources of the Koch brothers are being used to oppose improvements to public transportation in communities across the country. Republican politicians have been trying for years to force the sale of federal land in Western states. They have been stymied by the organized public outcry of those who use the land for recreation, many of whom are Republican voters.
The economic arguments for privatization don’t stand up against historical experience. When Chicago sold the rights to its parking meters to a private company, the cost of parking jumped. When Vice President Pence was Indiana’s governor, he pushed the privatization of a stretch of Indiana highway I-69 in 2014. The project is years behind, the private company went bankrupt, and the state had to take over the road.
Private property is administered for the good of the owner. Public property is managed for public good, for all of us. I want to be in charge of my own home, where I can make decisions reflecting my personal interests. I want public ownership of facilities which serve the public, so that everyone can have a voice in their administration. Neither private nor public is automatically better than the other – they have different purposes.
The Republican drive against public property and public services would put our fates into the hands of rich companies and rich people who want to make money, not do the public good.
I love both private and public property. The proper mix insures the democratic equality that should be the basis of American society.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, August 21, 2018