Charles Derber and June Sekera point to a deficit of public goods in their Jan. 22 op-ed “An invisible crisis.” One reason they cite for the deficit is the belief held by conservatives that only private business creates real wealth. Privatization is a favorite panacea of free-market libertarians. The City of Boston, for instance, could privatize the Public Garden by selling it to a corporation that would set up a fence around it and charge admission. The Public Garden would be self-supporting, and the city would be relieved of the burden of maintaining it. But most people would feel that something intangible had been lost.
Radical free-market libertarians subscribe to the view that the philosopher John Dewey referred to as rugged individualism, that good order, social peace, and prosperity will appear magically out of the ruthless and desperate struggle for survival among millions of individuals and businesses. Economic calamities are mere bumps in the road on the way to a glorious future. No matter how bad things seem, all is for the best in the best of all possible economies.
When, instead, the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, the environment is degraded, civic life breaks down, and the bursting of financial bubbles blows up the global economy, libertarians find themselves in the position of asking the public the question Chico Marx asked Margaret Dumont in “Duck Soup”: “Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?”
Civic life depends on things the market can’t or won’t provide, things tangible and intangible that the market doesn’t value and that are quite literally priceless.