How Private Services Became Public

Things we take for granted today -- public police, roads and libraries -- were only achieved through long, hard political battles that lasted decades and sometimes centuries.
by | October 2012

Alex Marshall

Alex is a Governing columnist and a Senior Fellow at The Regional Plan Association in New York City.

I have been observing, studying and writing about cities for about 25 years -- proof I’m getting old, but also that I’ve had enough time to pick up a few insights on the subject.

To me, the journey has been about understanding how places and people work, to try to see the fundamental nature of things. This resulted in my first book, How Cities Work, and it has led to my newest book, The Surprising Design of Market Economies.

Although the title would indicate the book is about economics -- and it is -- it’s also about cities, government and politics, because by my reckoning those things are central to economics. My thesis is that markets in an economic sense are built by government, which means their construction is a political decision. Along the way to this conclusion, various lessons have emerged.

The primary one is that nothing is easy. Things we utterly take for granted today -- things that the left, right and center agree on -- were only achieved through long hard political battles, always lasting decades, sometimes for more than a century. I’m talking about really basic stuff, like public water and sewers, policing, public education, public roads and public libraries, to mention just a few.

You see the common word here: “public.” Before the 19th century, there were many private sellers of water, but few public providers. The same goes for police, schools and more. Changing these services from private to public did not come easy.

Take public education. Even if one favors vouchers or is a critic of teacher unions, there is virtually unanimous support in this country for the idea that children should be educated at public expense. But it was not always that way. The first common schooling laws were proposed during and after the American Revolution in the late 18th century. But it wasn’t until the early 20th century that every state in the union had laws requiring all children to go to school, and that such schools be paid for by public dollars.

In between were decades of arguments, state by state, over who should pay for what. They were remarkably similar in tone and content to today’s arguments about health care, which, one might observe, have been going on for at least a half century. As with schools, will we make the leap from privately paid health care to publicly available to all? I don’t know. Ask me in a half century.

Or take policing. New York City was one of the first to have a uniformed police force, with men wearing badges that identified them as police. Their mission was to catch criminals and to keep the peace. Modeled on London’s police force, which was set up in the 1820s, it was controversial. The idea of uniformed men under a military-style command walking among citizens was seen, perhaps rightly so, as a threat to the new democracy.

Before this time, there had only been private security guards, and a small public force of night watchmen. New York set up a police force several times, only to disband them. It wasn’t until 1857 that the city established the present force, and at first they wore no uniforms and carried no weapons, only badges. After the turmoil of the Civil War, other cities followed New York’s lead.

Similar political battles were fought over public water systems. Philadelphia led the way, followed soon by New York, which went deeply into debt to pay for the Croton Aqueduct system that opened in 1842. A half century of legislative battles preceded it, dating back to the first proposal for a public water system in the 1790s.

Libraries merit a book unto themselves, no pun intended. Rich folks were proud of their private libraries. (Congress set up the Library of Congress by buying Thomas Jefferson’s private library.) In fact, private lending libraries, where one paid a fee or a subscription, were the norm. Public libraries were few and far between. Industrialist Andrew Carnegie moved the ball along with his widespread donations. Today, we accept that public libraries are a good thing: a place where books, paid for by the public, are available to all, for free. Sounds like socialism, doesn’t it? It’s an example of how once something is accepted, the labels don’t matter anymore.

I’ve talked mostly about the physical aspects of our life. There are also plenty of stories to tell about the way we have set up less visible networks, such as corporations, which have a fascinating history. Did you know that most cities are state-chartered corporations, just like Apple or IBM? As states have increased the power of private corporations, they have diminished the power of public corporations like cities, which used to have a greater degree of autonomy and independence.

Whether it’s a city, a school, a library or today’s “free” market, all are designed by us, through government.


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