The government shutdown is teaching us a lot about the “public sector” — mainly that it doesn’t exist.
For many folks Autumn is a season for getting out into the wild, for viewing fall colors, building camp fires, breathing in the still sweet air and plainly enjoying the great outdoors — “our” public lands. With the government shutdown, however, it is rather difficult to access “our” national parks and wilderness areas. Public lands are suddenly not so public — access is denied.
This presents a conundrum: If our wilderness areas are really public lands why do we not have access to them? The answer is rather simple — we do not have public parks or wilderness areas; in their place we instead find state territory. We do not have freedom to roam, explore and enjoy uncultivated land because it is property claimed by the state.
The federal government has profound influence on who has access to land, how it is used and where and when such land use can take place. Over one third of the United States is “owned” and operated [PDF] by the federal government. Government institutions and policies have major implications for natural resources, wilderness habitat and the public’s freedom to roam. In the current system, the more power or capital one has, the more influence they have over policy. Because of this there is not only a government monopoly over uncultivated lands but also a pervasive corporate monopoly. We see this with the encroachment on wilderness with road and dam construction, concessions and lodging in “protected” areas as well as timber operations, mining and oil and gas exploration. If you can pay you can play and if the public dissents or wishes not to have wilderness exploited there is a system in place to protect your interests — one need not look further than the jailing of Tim DeChristopher or the government crack-down on environmental activism for an example.
If there were truly a public sector, however, individuals, as equals, could freely participate in decisions that involve our society — including land use. If we were liberated and set forth policy in a true public arena without invasive concentrations of power then there would be equality in access to resources, information and land. With as much as the citizens of this country find National Parks to be places of pride and adventure we should have no doubt that the true free market would develop mechanisms for stewardship of our natural places. In other words, there would still be park rangers enjoying their jobs today — possibly much more so.
Concentrated power, however, seeks to restrict the true market form and with it democratic consensus. This is why we cannot enjoy “public” lands during this government shut down. Democracy is restricted, it is part of the system, it has been removed from the public arena and placed into institutions.
If citizens wish for a public sector that will allow them to freely and responsibly enjoy their natural heritage then we should labor to reclaim the commons. We should labor to free ourselves from corporate institutional supremacy. If our society was decentralized and democratic our children would always have access to rivers, meadows, forests and mountainous peaks — they would always be able to experience the liberation of wildness.