By Niranjan Ramakrishnan
The Eiffel Tower has been sold a couple of times. So too have Platform #1 of the Patna Railway Station, and the Taj Mahal. We are struck by the audacity of a seller parlaying a public landmark into a private transaction. We laugh at the suckers who were so gullible to buy them. As usual, we laugh loudest at those who resemble us most.
A couple of days ago, there appeared an article about the privatization of water in India. Privatization of the commons is always cause for alarm, because its social consequences are always disastrous. Some time ago, I wrote that the single major differentiator between the First and Third Worlds was the faith in the Commons. The First world had huge investments in the public sphere. No less a luminary than John Kenneth Galbraith, Kennedy's ambassador to Nehru, wrote in his memoirs how he would find himself chuckling at the Indian government's boasts of socialism, gently reminding them that there was much more social investment in America than they could ever imagine in India (I paraphrase).
What does this all mean in terms of consciousness? When I was growing up in India, a family celebrating a wedding would think nothing of erecting a wedding tent in the middle of a public street. Blocking a major road meant that you had real clout. A religious bhajan would be blared out on loudspeakers, with no concern for those in the neighborhood. Ditto for the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer. People would complain when it was someone else doing it, but they would do the same in their turn. Now things have changed, as people are more conscious of the boundary between private and public.
Put differently, first world thinking means we do not presume upon public resources for private ends. When we begin to misuse public resources, the inevitable result is (a) greater layers of bureaucracy and (b) the deterioration all such public resources and (c) increased social tension and strife. Even the person who perpetrates this, if he continues to live in the same society, will eventually feel the ill-effects of this process.
One enduring contribution of the Reagan era has been the legitimization of the grab of the commons for private profit. Twenty five years after it commenced, we are still in Reagan's thrall, so much so that this mindset is no longer even questioned, although some stirrings may have commenced -- the latest evidence being a complaint by Field and Stream magazine that Bush and Cheney are terrible stewards of the wild.
Societies break down in strange ways when the commons is used for personal profit, or even perverse private fulfilment. Graffiti is shocking when it first appears on the stop sign near your home. A week later it shocks a lot less. A month later you're practically used to it. Respect for the law, too, is part of the commons. It works because everyone does it. Weird as it might seem, the simple expedient of standing in line is by no means universal. It is a tribute to American society that people do so. That so many people drive, and have a fair understanding of traffic rules, is nothing short of an American social engineering miracle.
What about illegal immigration? When I read impassioned speeches and writings about the rights of illegal immigrants, I wish I could ask these opponents of punishment for illegal immigration a simple question -- would you allow any illegal immigrant to stay in your home and support them 100%? Remember, 100% -- which means you have to pay for private schooling for their children, their health care, etc. -- forever (You cannot, after all, seek to benefit from a breaking of the law). I doubt there would be many takers. And this, it seems to me, is the basic infirmity of their position. They want to be charitable, and claim to be settling ancient scores, but all on the back of the Commons.
Call their attention to this, and there are angry responses about how America had done this or that atrocity, or how immigrants have built this country. That last is particularly unctious. Let us suppose I helped build a public park. Let us even ignore the fact that I was paid for it (as did any immigrant). Does that mean that I can, without permission, usurp it to throw a party? As with the Taj Mahal or the Eiffel Tower, I cannot dispose of something I do not own outright. If there are others involved, they must sign on too. In the case of the commons, those involved are the American people, most immediately those living along the Mexican border. Who has obtained their assent to allow foreigners to arbitrary cross into their towns, because some wise folk in Wall Street or Washington have concluded that immigration is a 'net plus'? And when their governments fail to protect them despite repeated pleas, why should anyone be surprised at the rise of bodies like the Minutemen?
One does not have to lose sight of America's numerous acts of omission and commission in and outside the USA. But that is no excuse for anyone to defend sneaking around the law, soaking up public resources in a manner never intended. After all, even if the official figures of 12 million illegal immigrants (which should, realistically, be revised upwards, being official statistics -- that's third world thinking) are true, that is a 4% population of illegal immigrants, encroaching upon the commons. A large figure in any circumstances, in an era when investment in the Commons is considered akin to heresy, it is a straw more than capable of felling the camel.
Niranjan Ramakrishnan can be reached at email@example.com. His blog is at http://njn-blogogram.blogspot.com/.