Public Goods and Social Justice
By Margaret Kohn, University of Toronto
Why should the state provide public goods? I explore this question by focusing on the example of public parks. It examines the three most influential approaches to public goods (the market failures, the normative, and the democratic) and concludes that they fail to explain why parks should be public. I propose an alternative that I call solidarism, a social justice-based approach that provides a response to liberal arguments about the neutrality of the state. Solidarism emphasizes that modernity gives rise to growing levels of interdependence that generate benefits and burdens that are not shared fairly. Public goods as such are a way of compensating for the negative externalities of urbanization and industrialization. Left libertarians argue that such compensation should exclusively take the form of individual benefits. I challenge this view and provide three reasons for building public infrastructure that is shared among people who live together in a physical space: solidarity, decommodification, and politics. Exploring the publicness of parks provides a window into the broader question about the limits of the market and the importance of public space for democracy.