The Problem With Private Property

Much has been made of the bathroom issue at Occupy Wall Street and other Occupy encampments across the U.S.. I refer to the question posed many times by mainstream media outlets: where do the protesters go to the bathroom? Often framed as a public health and sanitation concern, there have also been reports of merchants upset by the use of their facilities by protesters. This is one facet of the movement on which many media outlets have zoomed in, so much so that the media attention to it has warranted satirical address on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. From a sociological perspective, it is interesting that this issue has come into focus, because it is a manifestation of the central gripe of protesters: the privatization of public resources.

A “Sanisette”, or public toilet, in Paris. Photo from Google Images.

Walking around Paris, it is hard to imagine that a city could function without ample public toilets. They are everywhere here, and they are free. As a traveler on a low budget, I am most grateful for them. In one week I have enjoyed three different public facilities while walking the city. Each was clean, safe, and energy efficient. When one spends time in cities beyond the borders of the U.S., one comes to see this void in American public resources. It’s not just Paris that offers such accommodations. I enjoyed similar public facilities in Zurich, the Swiss capital. In Geneva I was impressed by pleasant smell of a public wood chip dry-composting toilet near a bar along the river. It is sad that to an American this is a marvel, considering the basic human need these facilities meet.

Public toilets are hard to come by in the U.S., hence the issue at the Occupy encampments. When they are found, they are often disgusting, in disrepair, poorly lit, and insecure. Here, I refer to toilets available on the street and in parks. This is not to say that technically public toilets are not available if you can find them. They can be found in public buildings like libraries, city halls, and schools, but accessing some of these may require class and racial privileges that many do not possess. If deployed carefully, these privileges afford access to private facilities too. When I find myself enjoying the Boston Common, the lounge facilities at the Four Seasons hotel adjacent to it provide my toilet of choice. But, while my skin and general appearance opens the door to this bathroom for me, these same factors keep it firmly closed to many others.

In 2004 the American Restroom Association was founded to advocate for the “availability of clean, safe, and well designed public restrooms.” Really? Yes. The problem is so extensive that an organization was founded to combat it. Why do we have so few public toilets in the U.S.? The question may seem trivial to some, but as I stated in the lead of this post, it cuts to the heart of the financial crisis. While much has been made about the “one percent,” the “ninety-nine percent,” and the massive wealth gap between the two, we don’t hear enough about how that gap has resulted from the corporate privatization of formerly public resources.

While Marx once said that the history of the world is the history of class struggle, taking under consideration how capitalism has evolved since his passing, we might say today that the history of the world is the history of privatization. This problem dates much earlier than the deregulation of trade and financial markets in recent decades; in fact, it reaches back at least three millennia. The enslavement of individuals by others has been recorded at least as far as 1295 B.C., and after that, feudal societies in medieval Europe were structured by private ownership of land. European colonists who traversed the globe from the 13th century on in search of resources did so in the interest of enriching the wealth and power of monarchies. When American colonists declared their independence from the British crown, they did so primarily to protect private wealth from absorption by the monarchy in the form of taxes and tariffs. The modern corporation, which took shape in the late 19th century, was designed to encapsulate, protect, and generate private wealth. The deregulation of their activities over the last half-century has allowed for the rapid, vast, and unprecedented wealth accumulation.

Today’s wealth gap looks like that of the “roaring” twenties.

This wealth was culled from previously public resources including land, forests, minerals, water, air, crude oil, and natural gas, among other things. Frustratingly, this accumulation of private wealth has been subsidized by public funds, and stewarded by public servants. Most recently, the bailouts of major U.S. and transnational banks and financial institutions transferred a vast and unprecedented amount of public wealth into private hands. Because of this, journalist Robert Scheer referred to the bailout package as the greatest heist of all time in his book, The Great American Stickup. Incidentally, in France, where public toilets are abundant in major metropolitan areas, the wealth gap has not grown as it has in the U.S..

Corporate profits after tax over time.

The logic of privatization has sweeping impacts that harm the common good. I pointed out in the most recent post that deregulation of the telecommunications industry led to concentration of ownership of print, radio, and television media outlets by just six major corporations. This occurred as the federal government disinvested in public media. While nationwide there are approximately 1300 public television and radio outlets, federal funding for them has been slashed in recent years. Today federal, state, and local government funds contribute only a fraction of the budget necessary for running these outlets. Earlier this year the U.S. House of Representatives voted to end funding for public media by cutting the $50 million budget for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which disperses funds to public outlets.

As the efficacy of America’s public school system falls in comparison to other nations, the response of the government has not been to provide resources, but to fire teachers, which has happened en masse in D.C., Providence, Rhode Island, New York City, and New Orleans; close schools; and push private charter schools instead. What meager public healthcare system the U.S. had, in the form of Medicare and Medicaid, has been significantly defunded. Just last month another set of massive cuts were proposed, and the hope for legislation to create a robust public healthcare system in the U.S. is now off the table for the Obama presidency. Not limited to policy, medical ethicist Harriet Washington recently published a book, Deadly Monopolies: The Shocking Corporate Takeover of Life Itself—And the Consequences for Your Health and Our Medical Future, that exposes the dangerous nature of the privatization of medical research.

Increased privatization has occurred within the military too. During the U.S. led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade there has been an unprecedented upsurge in outsourcing to private military and security contractors. Sharon Weinburger of the Center for Public Integrity recently reported on Democracy Now that federal spending on no-bid private military contracts has tripled, from $50 billion in 2003 to $140 billion today. KBR, a former subsidiary of Halliburton, has received $37 billion in government funds over the last ten years. This lucrative government contract was granted to the company when then Vice President Dick Cheney, former CEO and chair of Halliburton, was in office. The absence of oversight and liability of these corporations has birthed violent and devastating results, both for Iraqi civilians, and for the contractors’ employees. Notably, there is no shortage of federal funding for these projects.

National Forest Service lands as a percentage of total area by state.

Beyond privatization of industries and services, the availability of public space has been in continual decline since the founding of our nation. The vast majority of publicly held land is in the Western U.S., and many states have practically none designated for public use. To the extent that much of this land is wilderness, while it may be enjoyable for recreation, it does not have much use value in the everyday life of many citizens. Even that which is technically public often requires a fee for entry, which means access is brokered along class lines.

The problem with privatization, in essence, is that it creates private property. The problem with private property is that it is exclusive. Privatization gives right of access to certain groups and individuals, and not others. It creates boundaries. To the extent that boundaries and the laws that enforce them ensure our personal safety, they are beneficial. To the extent that boundaries born of privatization absorb public land and resources for the enrichment of the few and to the detriment of the many, they are deeply problematic.

It is difficult to challenge the logic of private property in America because it is embedded in the United States Constitution, the ideological and legal foundation of our nation. When I asked attorney at law Anne Gibson, a graduate of Harvard Law School and a specialist in American tax law, if the U.S. legal system was designed around the protection of private property, she confirmed that this is an accurate interpretation. She elaborated, “The English common law, upon which our American common law is based, is in large part focused on and developed around the protection of privately held property. In America in particular, as evidenced by our Constitution, the right to be secure in one’s property is held to be one of our fundamental rights. Many of our Constitutional rights revolve around protecting property from confiscation by the government, and, our laws protect people’s privately held property from encroachment, damage, and theft by other individuals.”

I know many of you are thinking, “Of course the Constitution protects our private property! Who else is going to do so, if not our government?!” To which I would respond, “Indeed!” But, it is important to make a distinction between the security of one’s home and resources required for the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness, and the corporate ownership of the majority of the resources in our society. It is also important to recognize that when the Constitution was drafted the newborn nation was rich in publicly available resources, especially land (leaving aside for the sake of brevity the theft of land from American Indians). In fact, the right to peaceably assemble, as guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights along with freedom of religion, of speech, and of the press, was recognized by the founding fathers as a requisite for democracy, and is predicated on the availability of public land.

German sociologist Jürgen Habermas wrote of the importance of public space in his book published in 1962, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Habermas defined the “public sphere” as places where, through discussion and debate, social problems are addressed, decisions are made, and “the public”, composed of otherwise disconnected private individuals, is made real. In the public sphere the public can hold accountable and challenge societal leaders. The public sphere is, or was, the essence of democracy. Habermas observed that as capitalism developed and its logic spread from the 18th century on, consumer impulses deepened and played an increasing role in shaping how people see the world. Thus, citizens became consumers. One has to wonder, if the public sphere has disappeared, has real democracy too?

The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights guarantees the right to peaceably assemble.Sadly, in general terms, it has. But, inspiringly, it crops up occasionally in response to crisis, like it has recently in the Occupy movement. The very nature of the movement–the occupation of the privately owned Zuccotti Park, and the repurposing of it into a public sphere that serves democracy and the common good–cuts right to the core of the great social problem of privatization. After taking the park and renaming it “Liberty Square,” the Occupy Wall Street movement, and others around the world, have engaged in the democratic process of People’s Assembly to address the social, economic, and political ramifications of a corporately controlled world. As the popular protest chant goes, “This is what democracy looks like!”

If our society is to realize significant change, we will have to take the Occupy movement seriously as an expression of pervasive inequality and discontent. Then, we will have to act on the critiques of the ubiquitous statistics that illustrate the vast disparity in wealth. Real change will require that we redistribute private wealth, and invest in public resources. Certainly the kings and queens of Wall Street and the global finance sector should be forced to part with their vast riches, but the solution is not as simple as pointing fingers at the “one percent” and falling in line with the “ninety-nine.” In order for change to happen, we must acknowledge that each of us has bought into the logic of privatization, and support it in numerous ways. Not just the rich, but the rest of us too, must reconsider how resources are distributed across public and private domains.

A clear example is supporting taxes for social services and programs, instead of calling for tax cuts. Perhaps a less obvious one, despite its banality, is the simple concept of sharing resources. Would a world in which we each had a little bit less to call our own, but on average, had more publicly guaranteed resources available to us, be such a bad thing? If you think that it sounds like I am suggesting socialism, well, you are right. I will elaborate on this in the next post. In the meantime, please join me in creating a public sphere of dialogue about this in the comments below.

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8 thoughts on “The Problem With Private Property”

    1. Oh wow, that is interesting stuff. I agree, to a degree, that “property rights are human rights.” This is why I wrote in the post that I appreciate that property rights have the power to afford security, safety, and comfort. But I take issue with his analysis, as you well know, because it is constructed in a vacuum in which racism, classism, and other forms of discrimination and prejudices do not exist. His example of a black woman outbidding a white person for a rental unit to offset racism is downright absurd. Black women pay one of the highest race/gender penalties in terms of wages and wealth. So I suppose that could happen in an alternate universe, but not in the society in which we live. He also seems to work with the assumption that private property is fairly distributed among all who compete for it, rather than owned and controlled by a very small percentage of the population. I know that economists agree with me that concentration of ownership affords power, so he should be able to identify this flaw in his definition. So I guess what I am saying is, all of that is nice in theory, but it is not a reflection of reality. Thoughts?

  1. Regarding the initial issue of public toilets, I do think that the difference between the US and Europe is embedded in much larger social inequalities.

    While I have used clean, safe public toilets in Europe, I wonder if it’s even possible to have clean, safe public amenities here in the US, given our other social issues. The US not only has much more social inequality (i.e., “more poor people”), but we also lack socialized medicine and other forms of social services. Consequently, the US has a bigger problem with homelessness, and, specifically, the mentally ill and/or substance-abusing homeless. Consequently, public amenities tend to be used by people living on the streets, including people with mental health/substance-abuse problems, etc. – making it much more likely that public amenities will quickly become dirty, unsafe, and disgusting. For example, the bathroom at my local public library is often virtually unusable until it is cleaned and “aired out” after being used by very dirty, very bad-smelling, probably mentally ill/substance abusing homeless people. And stopping people from engaging in the unhygienic practice of bathing and washing out clothes in the restroom sinks is an ongoing problem. Given issues with certain communicable diseases, there are safety issues here as well.

    I make this point not to ridicule or dehumanize unwell homeless people with hygiene problems. It’s a travesty that there aren’t proper services for these people in the first place. My point is just that when you already live in a society with woefully inadequate social services, it “trickles down”, so to speak, to the level of public bathrooms. I think part of the reason we don’t have public restrooms here is because the restrooms can’t handle the burden of our larger social problems.

    1. Ellie, these are good points. Thanks for joining the conversation! I agree with your assessment that the absence of public toilets in the U.S. is “embedded in much larger social inequalities.” I would say, this absence is a manifestation of inequality, as are other voids in public goods and services. From my perspective, the problem you pose is not the presence of the homeless (though certainly this is a major social problem in the U.S.), but the low number of public toilets per capita. If U.S. cities had more available, your experiences in them would presumably be better, because there would be a lower person-to-toilet ratio. This rule applies to all public services, I think. The more we have available, the better they work for those of us who use them. What do you think about that?

      1. I imagine if there were plenty of public toilets, any one location would have fewer issues with homeless people bathing in the sinks, etc. But I think the problem would still exist, particuarly in more urban areas. My instinct is still that we have issues here – specifically, the lack of a decent social-safety net and free health care – that affect other public amenities, up to and including usable public toilets. (The fact that we also “don’t have the money” – or more sepcifically, have voters and politicians who don’t want to allocate the money – for adequate cleaning and maintenance of any public amenity doesn’t help either. After all, the rich need their tax cuts & the military-industrial complex needs its contracts.)

        I guess my main point is that the lack of public toilets is just a “tip of the iceberg” manifestation of a lack of public goods and services like health care for all, adequate welfare, social services, housing, etc. And it’s interesting to me how one form of simple public amenity (e.g., public toilets) may not work very well in a society that doesn’t invest in more critical services. Sorry, we can’t give you a safe, clean place to pee – because we won’t give that mentally ill person medicine or a place to live. It’s all connected.

  2. It’s strange — the only time I remember stopping to use the restroom while I was in Paris was when my mom and I wandered into the Hotel Crillon, on the Place de la Concorde. Perhaps it sticks out in my memory because the hotel is the epitome of filthy rich, and I felt all sorts of underdressed and out-of-place there.

    Starbucks in NYC has recently made headlines for saying that they will no longer make their bathrooms available to the public, or, it seems, even to paying customers. This article from the New York Post points to a trend of bathrooms going employee-only, a further narrowing of the space that’s deemed “public.” If you can’t buy your way into a bathroom by purchasing an overpriced latte, what’s left?

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