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Sabeel Rahman’s democratic conception of public goods is founded on the idea of a public responsibility for ensuring the essentials of a democratic society. Public goods are among those essentials. They answer to the basic needs of persons, conceived of as free and equal members of a democratic society. What those public goods are and the best methods for providing them vary across time and circumstance. In our time and circumstance, public goods should include clean water and air, good schools, broadband Internet access, and quality health care. Discharging the responsibility to provide those goods is not only a core public responsibility, Rahman says. It will also help to foster a sense of commonality—of a we with a common fate. Rahman calls this dimension of public provision the “constitutive” aspect of public goods.
I agree with much of Rahman’s view, but found his account of this constitutive aspect surprisingly thin. In a collaborative spirit, I propose to thicken this aspect of the democratic conception with a story about how the ambition to foster democracy and democratic sensibilities helped to shape the design of Central Park, one of the country’s truly great public goods.
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In a 1924 biography of Frederick Law Olmsted, Broadus Mitchell says that Olmsted was “first, and last, a democrat.” A commitment to democracy links Olmsted’s remarkable artistry in designing New York’s Central Park with his early work as a journalist.
Olmsted spent much of 1853–54 working in the South. Then in his early thirties, Olmsted was writing for the New York Daily Times (eventually renamed the New York Times). Olmsted’s journalism grew from arguments about slavery with his abolitionist friend Charles Loring Brace: “I am not a red-hot abolitionist like Charley, but am a moderate free soiler . . . would take in a fugitive slave and shoot a man that was likely to get him.” Unconvinced by Brace’s “red-hot” abolitionism, Olmsted decided to study southern agriculture, slavery, and white planter aristocracy close-up.
Central Park was not only about fair access to a great good. It was fostering social integration by bringing people together for a shared experience of that great good.
Olmsted’s journalism eventually resulted in three books, synthesized in The Cotton Kingdom (1861). In the first, Olmsted writes: “Thus slavery, or aristocracy, a ruling or a subject class in a community, is in itself a very great hindrance to its industrial progress; that is, to its acquisition of wealth—moral, aesthetic, and mental, as well as material wealth [emphasis added]. This is the way Democrats reason.”
Reasoning with the democrats, Olmsted rejected slavery and aristocracy. But he was an anxious democrat, worried about a powerful set of intellectual and practical challenges to democracy. Meeting those challenges would demand the full devotion of its adherents.
Olmsted expresses his anxieties in a letter to Brace in December 1853. Traveling with his older brother, John, he visited Samuel Perkins Allison, a Yale classmate of John’s, large Tennessee planter, and “a thorough Aristocrat.” Allison challenged the Olmsteds’ democratic convictions: “he silenced us.” Olmsted did not admire aristocrats, who cleaved to a conventional code of honor and lacked a genuine moral sense. But observing the shortcomings of aristocrats did not silence concerns about northern democracy, which was marked by poverty, toil, urban squalor, and a crude commercialism and materialism.
Shaken by Allison’s challenge, Olmsted resolved: “I must either be an Aristocrat or more of a Democrat than I have been—a Socialist Democrat.” As the phrase “socialist democrat” suggests, Olmsted was concerned with “a democratic condition of society,” not only with a democratic form of government. Being more of a democrat, then, meant devoting himself to creating great public goods, including parks and other public spaces, that would produce a “general elevation of all classes.”
A few years later, in September 1857, Olmsted became superintendent of Central Park. Soon thereafter, he and Calvert Vaux won the contest to design the park. For Olmsted, designing Central Park was an opportunity to pursue the socialist-democratic ambition crystallized by his experience in the South. That ambition imposed three demands—all powerfully illustrated by Central Park and instructive about the democratic importance of public goods.
Blending fair access, natural beauty, and sociality, this great public good would refute the aristocrats.
First, building Central Park meant expanding an opportunity to all that was then available only to the few. Olmsted once described the purpose of Central Park as “supply[ing] to the hundreds of thousands of tired workers, who have no opportunity to spend their summers in the country, a specimen of God’s handiwork that shall be to them, inexpensively, what a month or two in the White Mountains or the Adirondacks is, at great cost, to those in easier circumstances.” Ensuring great public spaces—making them available to all—served the value of fairness, and was thus a “political duty of grave importance.”
But not just that. Central Park needed to be great, not simply open and available to all. It needed, in particular, to be beautiful. Olmsted discerned a shared human interest in the experience of natural beauty. In his 1865 report on “Yosemite and the Mariposa Grove,” he says:
It has always been the conviction of the governing classes of the old world that it is necessary that the large mass of all human communities should spend their lives in almost constant labor and that the power of enjoying beauty either of nature or of art in any high degree, requires a cultivation of certain faculties, which is impossible to these humble toilers. . . . It is the folly of laws which have permitted and favored the monopoly by privileged classes of many of the means supplied in nature for the gratification, exercise and education of the esthetic faculties that has caused the appearance of dullness and weakness and disease of these faculties in the mass of the subjects of kings. And it is against a limitation of the means of such education to the rich that the wise legislation of free governments must be directed.
Making a beautiful public space available to all would thus answer to and awaken a shared human interest, suppressed but not extinguished by the “governing classes.” As the Central Park Commission affirmed in its 1863 report, “there is a universality in nature.”
Moreover, Central Park was not only about fair access to a great good. It was fostering social integration by bringing people together for a shared experience of that great good. “Democratic Government,” Olmsted said, has a duty to provide “places and times for reunions, which shall be so attractive that the rich and the poor, the cultivated and well-bred, and the sturdy and self-made people shall be attracted together and encouraged to assimilate.” Central Park thus needed to be a place for the people, and not simply for persons, and thus help to shape a sense of a we.
Designed with this constitutive aspiration, Central Park aimed to bring people together on an equal footing for a shared experience of natural beauty. The main locus of that experience was the Avenue, the park’s great, open, public promenade—the “central feature” of the design—leading from the southern end of the park to the Bethesda Terrace, with its Alhambra-inspired, encaustic tile ceiling, and the densely wooded Ramble: the intersection of democracy and beauty. “Of all its great achievements and features,” Park Commissioner Gordon Davis wrote in 1981, “there is none more profound or dramatically moving than the social democracy of this public space. For years it has been and today continues to be socially and racially integrated, notwithstanding patterns of caste and class stratification and polarization throughout society as a whole.”
Blending fair access, natural beauty, and sociality, this great public good would refute the aristocrats. Their conviction—from Plato to the “governing classes of the old world” to southern aristocrats such as Samuel Perkins Allison—was that democracies aspire to do things for everyone and deliver lowest-common-denominator junk. That is why the “conspirators” trusted in 1861, “as they have ever trusted, to the supposed superiority of a community of privileged classes over an actual democracy.” A compelling refutation of this aristocratic conceit needed to be practical: build a beautiful public good, trust that people would come, and have confidence that when they did, they would develop a sense of being a we—the people to whom the democratic park belonged.
Joshua Cohen is co-editor of Boston Review, member of the faculty of Apple University, and Distinguished Senior Fellow in law, philosophy, and political science at University of California, Berkeley.
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