A Commons Problem ( newrepublic.com )

In his 2015 book The Republic of Conscience, former U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Gary Hart identifies what may be the central dynamic of American political and economic history: the struggle to accommodate the interests of a commonwealth with a capitalist economic system. “There has never been a serious effort to convert the United States to socialism or widespread public ownership,” he points out. “There have been continuing efforts, even today, to convert much of our publicly owned resources to private ownership and development.”

As Hart explains, we enjoy two different kinds of public resources—natural resources, such as land, water, and wilderness; and built public infrastructure, such as transportation systems, recreation areas and facilities, and public schools. The question of which resources should be administered by public agencies on behalf of everyone and which should be subject to the private interests of corporations and shareholders is and will remain passionately contested in politics. Hart argues that the citizens of a commonwealth are obliged to preserve public resources not only for their own benefit but for the sake of future generations. “The charters of few if any private corporations include concern for the well-being of future generations,” he comments, rather bitterly.

Hart observes elsewhere that the United States is heir to two distinct and venerable politico-philosophical traditions, that of liberalism and that of republicanism (which is often referred to nowadays as “civic republicanism,” to avoid any confusion with the Republican Party). The central focus of the liberal tradition is on the rights of individual citizens to be free of interference by government in their private affairs. The republican tradition, on the other hand, concerns itself with the public arena, and the

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