Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Private property and common goods: parking vs. children's play area..
Private property is very important. Most people work hard for what they own and it matters to them that they be secure in their possession. They want to be sure, when they go to work in the morning, that they find their car in the driveway where they parked it last night. They want to feel completely safe in their house and not have their yard invaded by drunken party-goers. Owning private property means that one can exclude all others from one's house, one's yard, one's car. It is up to the owner to decide who may enter her house or drive her car.
Not all things in this world can be privately owned. There are many goods from which one cannot exclude other users. Clean air is there for all to enjoy. All breathe the same air. To be sure the air in inner cities tends to be worse than in wealthy suburbs. But within each area, the air is the same for all. No one can exclude others from breathing the same air. Parks and playgrounds belong to all. No one can claim private ownership and exclude everyone else. Some cities are livable; they are clean, their parks well kept and passersby are courteous and helpful. Those characteristics of an urban landscape cannot be privatized. Inevitably they are shared by all. They are a common good.
Sometimes private ownership and common goods conflict. I may own a forest and should, therefore, be allowed to cut down my trees if I so choose. But the trees contribute to clean air which is a common good and cutting down my trees may worsen the air quality for all. Here then some decision has to be made whether private property rights-- cutting down my trees -- should override the common good-- clean air for all, or whether the common good should take precedence.
Here is another example of such a conflict: The former City Hospital in Worcester has been flanked for many years by two or three acres of open space with some majestic old trees. The neighborhood is densely built-up; there are no parks within walking distance. The neighborhood children have played in this open space for generations, thereby avoiding having to play in the streets. A woman I know who is now close to thirty told me about growing up in the neighborhood and playing in the grassy area next to City Hospital. UMass/Memorial Hospital, owners of the building, some time ago decided to pave over this green space and cut down the trees. The planning board granted the necessary permits on the grounds that the hospital owned this open space and therefore had private property rights to exclude other users – in this case the neighborhood kids who had played there for many years.
The planning board refused to see the real conflict between the hospital's private property rights and the common good of the community to have a safe place for their children to play. This conflict confronts us in many different contexts, for instance, when ocean beach front homeowners want to exclude the public from using the beach and swimming in the ocean. We encounter the conflict when drug companies want to have unlimited potential for profits even if that means that poor people may die prematurely because they cannot afford to buy the needed medicines. Private profit is chosen as more important than a full life span for all. Entire cities decay when major industries move offshore. The private profit of the automobile company takes precedence over the quality of life in Michigan cities such as Detroit or Flint. The common good is made to yield to private property rights again and again.
The conflict is a serious one; it is not easy to resolve. But we tend, in too many cases, to sacrifice the common good for the rights of private owners. Because of that neglect of the common good, the quality of life of too many Americans has deteriorated in the last fifty years.