In my last post, I tried to argue that thinking about individual rights as if they existed in isolating was actually threatening to those very rights. This is one reason, I am suggesting, for taking "society" seriously. You don't have to like my wording. You can argue for state or civil society or some other wording. What it means is the same: there is some kind of collective social organization the operation of which is important. The issue, it seems to me, is not so much "does society have rights?" -- my original discourse -- but the degree to which we take this collectiveness seriously as part of the way in which we think about our society. Asserting individual rights in the absence of their context, I argued, was not a rejection of rights. To the contrary: it was a recognition of the necessarily social (political, legal, economic, cultural, etc.) institutions that were needed to maintain those rights. A failure to access these institutional dynamics, their autonomy, our our need to maintain them (say, an independent judiciary, a legal code, a free press) would end up subverting the very rights we seek to defend.
I also argued that we needed to be careful with conceptions of the public good. Historically, the term has often been mobilized to maintain the marginalization of already marginalized groups. A key example is efforts to limit the equality of gay and lesbian Canadians (say, with regard to marriage, adoption, spousal benefits, etc.). Using all kinds of different language, we were told that it was not in the public good (it was non-traditional, it would cost too much, it threatened the family -- none of which turned out to be true). Said differently, discussions of the "public good" should be entered into carefully.
But, it is still a discussion that we need to have. Why? We need to have this discussion because we need to determine if there is some sort of collective enterprise that is socially or nationally valuable outside of individual rights. I'd suggest that there is. This can include public infrastructure projects (like roads and bridges), matters of national defence and protection (the military, coast guard, search and rescue), health (standards for meat processing, e.g.), emergency situations (floods, power outages, etc.), and a range of others. I suspect my list will not surprise anyone. It is not exhaustive, but the fact that it seems so ordinary is important because it shows us the degree to which we have simply come to accept some conception of the public good as valuable in our lives and good for our society.
We understand public good policies and activities for a range of reasons. These can be captured under the discourse of social good or fairness or something else but there are a range of rationales for undertaking a public good action. These include: economies of scale (that it is less expensive than having the same actions undertaken by the private sector), emergency preparedness (the subject of a previous post), and natural monopolies. They can be undertaken because there is a general benefit and spin off effects that go beyond the original beneficiaries. I'll give an example to illustrate my point: imagine someone builds a road. Who benefits from that road? Well, the people who drive on it, to be sure, but also the people who now have access to police and emergency services, people for whom fire protection is now possible, people whose relatives can visit, people whose clients can make it to their place of business, people who shop at stores supplied by delivery trucks riding on roads. I'm not done but I'll stop because you can see the point. It is relatively easy to specify the original beneficiary. If I drive on a road, I benefit from that road. But, in most -- I'd argue the vast majority -- of cases, I benefit whether I actually drive on it or not.
We can make very similar points for things like water purification (if you don't think that is important, think for a minute about those communities that don't have it), snow removal, electricity, communications networks. Said differently, for a range of matters we can identify goods or services that involve much more than the key or first or original beneficiaries. Indeed, in some cases, it might be difficult to disentangle who was the key beneficiary from who is a subsidiary beneficiary.
This opens up questions that I've addressed in the past about who should pay for these kinds of services. I won't return to that, but you can see that the easy "user pay" argument does not really hold up well here since we cannot really figure out who the users are and who they are not. I've noticed, for example, that many key proponents of individual rights (people who claim to reject the authority of the state and say that taxation is illegitimate and who argue that one should pay only for those things they use, drive on roads). In all of these instances, what we are talking about is a public good.
We can actually specify the benefits these goods bring. Remember, this is social science so it is not like gravity. I'll likely post on "can you guarantee?"-like questions in the future some time after I've had a chance to put my thoughts in order. The key point I want to make is that benefits accrue broadly. For instance, my property value is enhanced by good roads, schools (about which I have not spoken), water purification, power generation, parks, clear lakes in which to swim, lower crime rates, and a host of other things. My quality of life improves (I am less subject to crime, more likely to enjoy concerts in the park, I can be safer swimming, etc.). I am more likely to have community volunteers. I am more likely to be safe in my home and be protected during a natural disaster or power outage.
Let's spin this out for a just a minute more: roads let me vacation in different parts of the province, minor sports (for which there is often a fee but who built those facilities?) provided fun and exercise for my children, search and rescue keeps me safe while I am kayaking, public health measures and regulations help prevent me from getting food poisoning, and on down the line.
I won't go on any more, because you can, I am sure, see this point too: public goods bring all sorts of public benefits. We lose track of these benefits when we too quickly assert "individual rights." Please note this: it is not that individual rights are not important. It is not that they should be relegated to some kind of collectivist gulag. It is that the discourse that pits individual rights against collective actions is misplaced. It prevents us from seeing the interaction between the two and the general benefits that we all enjoy from public good measures. It is good and wise to periodically have discussions about these issues. It would, however, be wrong to begin from a false distinction that pits the one against the other.