The Public in the Service of the Private

Some months ago, President Obama asserted — somewhat timidly — a proposition that should’ve been self-evident: that public regulation, public expenditure, and “big government” are not always, or even sometimes, the enemies of private enterprise. As in the case of upgrading the nation’s outdated air traffic control systems, a healthy national infrastructure, created by public dollars, enables private profit.

Yesterday’s Times draws an even clearer example — New York City itself — and explains how the heavy-handed government planning that created Manhattan’s iconic grid enabled the city’s rise to preeminence as a global city, the heart of American culture and finance.

In fact, the story runs even deeper: Manhattan’s inexpensive public transit, the subway, is one of the greatest success stories of how eminent domain can be used to take a private creation, turn it back to the public good, and by doing so enable broader private development. The 1940’s squeeze-out by which New York City acquired the Interborough Rapid Transit Company and the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Company was justifiably controversial — and the Supreme Court’s eventual resolution of the fare-caps that made the acquisition feasible, tenuous at best — but produced a more affordable, interconnected, and user-friendly system, better capable of enabling urban growth and suburban life. (In fact, if you’ve transferred at Times Square between the 1/2/3 Seventh Avenue Line and the N/Q/R Broadway Line, or used the 7 Flushing Line, you’ve benefited directly from unified city control.) “Big government” creates the conditions for small business to prosper. Per Jed Bartlet (YouTube):

No matter what its failures in the past and in times to come for that matter, government can be a place where people come together and no-one gets left behind. An instrument of good.

This is in fact the foundational theory of government: that we do better together than we would apart. Somehow we’ve forgotten that lesson during our two-year long tea-induced stupor, but it’s time to remember it, and for Obama, to campaign on it. Unity and common purpose have always prevailed in America over selfishness, profit, and oligarchy. And that, fundamentally, is what the 2012 election should be about.

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