Sunday, November 18, 2012

Cities and the public good

Republicans do particularly badly in cities, says Atlantic Cities, and it may not be a matter of race and demographics alone. Where people are squashed together, the need for public services is more obvious than on a tract of land in the exurbs.

In a good piece on the GOP’s problem with geography earlier this week, The New Republic’s Lydia DePillis interviewed Princeton Historian Kevin Kruse, who made this point succinctly: "There are certain things in which the physical nature of a city, the fact the people are piled on top of each other, requires some notion of the public good," he said. “Conservative ideology works beautifully in the suburbs, because it makes sense spatially."

The real urban challenge for conservatives going forward will be to pull back from an ideology that leaves little room for the concept of "public good," and that treats all public spending as if it were equally wasteful. Cities do demand, by definition, a greater role for government than a small rural town on the prairie. But the return on investment can also be much higher (in jobs created through transportation spending, in the number of citizens touched by public expenditures, in patents per capita, in the sheer share of economic growth driven by our metropolises

There may be something to this. It is indeed partly a matter of the public good, in the economic sense. But I would like to see more money spent on parks and libraries and infrastructure and other actual public services open to everybody - not transfers, entitlements and padded union pensions that go to particular individuals for their private use. I pay a staggering amount in New York City taxes, only a tiny fraction of which goes to actual public goods rather than entitlements or subsidies.

As often happens, the principle is correct, but the practice can be corrupted in machine politics and clientelism. In a similar way, I'd double spending on NASA and the National Parks at Federal level, things that everyone benefits from, so long as we eliminate soybean or corn subsidies, say, or limit the proportion of the federal budget spent on services and entitlements for the over 65s.

But it is not simpy about public goods, either. It is also a matter of being able to articulate a notion of the common good. Aristotle, as we saw, defined any constitution that does not aim at the common good as "deviant". Both parties have trouble with the common good, the Democrats because they are a coalition of sectional and selfish pressure groups, the Republicans because their libertarian and oligarchic country club wings both deny any notion of the common good at all.


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