Balancing Rampant Individualism with Mutual Aid
by Jay Walljasper
From the Fox-Wolf-Jackal Network
26 May 2035 1:15:29 p.m.
Their mission was to dismantle nearly all government programs outside of the military, law enforcement, corporate subsidies, and highway building. They deemed the public sector outmoded and dangerous — a threat to our economic liberties and future prosperity.
So-called conservatives of that era heralded the free market as an infallibly efficient instrument capable of directing decision-making at every level of society. They ascribed almost mystical powers to the market, and invoked its wisdom as if their beloved economic theories were actually a sacred union of the Ten Commandments and the Laws of Physics.
The fact there was nothing at all conservative about this political agenda seemed to trouble no one on the right. (Many moderate and more than a few liberal politicians and pundits also jumped on the libertarian bandwagon.) Indeed, rather than “conserving” natural resources and cultural traditions it was actually a radical plan leading to their devastation, and the weakening of the whole intricate web of ecological systems and human relationships which today we call the commons.
The basic blueprint of libertarian ideology was to privatize practically all of the commons, from municipal water supplies to the management of our parks, with the idea that owners’ drive for profits would result in the best outcomes for everyone. It’s not clear whether free market advocates actually believed this would work, but they certainly knew it would result in the best outcomes for wealthy investors and corporate top dogs who lavishly supported them with money and media attention.
Libertarianism reached its high water mark in American life in 2010 when the zealously anti-government, anti-tax Tea Party scored notable success in the mid-term elections, essentially taking over the Republican party and putting the Democrats on the defensive. But over the next few years it gradually disappeared from U.S. politics, as people realized that extreme market policies enacted over the previous thirty years were undermining the economic security, community wealth, environmental quality, and cooperative spirit of the vast majority of Americans.
Libertarian Paradise Lost
If you were looking for a place that symbolized the triumph of libertarianism in the early years of the century — the abiding faith that economic competition represents the only path to the good life — Cato, Texas, would be it. This outer-ring suburb of Houston, founded as a gated community in 2004, gained widespread media attention for its almost complete lack of government services. The local water utility was a subsidiary of the Bechtel Corporation, and nearly all the community’s children attended private prep schools or Christian academies.
Even the police department was run by a security company, with different levels of protection available to households depending on the premiums they paid. Most lower-cost plans, for instance, did not cover house calls for nuisance crimes, burglaries, or domestic disputes.
Cato never attracted anywhere near the 125,000 residents projected by its giddy developers. Today, the population stands at 4,200, down from about 11,000 in 2014. At one point there was serious discussion about leveling the place to create parkland and community gardens, but the town got a reprieve when a station on Houston’s expanding light rail system opened near what had been the community guardhouse.
But the real change happened in 2019 with the formation of People United to Build Livability in Cato (PUBLIC). Buffy Ayn Beauchamp, one of PUBLIC’s instigators, recalls, “At that time, all anyone could talk about was what’s wrong with Cato — no sidewalks, no parks, no locally owned businesses, no one who knew their neighbors. But this community had some good things going for it too, namely that a lot of people living here were willing to roll up their sleeves to make things better.”
Meeting weekly in the back room of the local Starbucks, PUBLIC drafted an ambitious agenda to tackle the town’s problems by looking at what everyone shared in common — a sentiment that would have been anathema to the community’s founders. Launching a babysitting co-op, youth mentoring programs, neighborhood tool exchanges, and a car-sharing club were the first orders of business of this hard-charging organization.
Then came the new park, the public school, a community recreation center, and the recycling depot — all funded by state, federal, and foundation grants but built by local volunteers. A vacant mall was fashioned into a Main Street, and a Latino cultural center now occupies the Old Navy store. Local churches spearheaded construction of a community-owned grocery, café, hardware store, fitness center, and cantina. The Houston Park District took over management of the country club, opening it to the public.
Strolling through the community on a spring evening, there are few reminders that the town began as an experiment in creating a privatized utopia. Indeed, historical preservationists lost the battle to save a statue of economist Milton Friedman that stood next to the now-demolished guardhouse at the town’s main entrance, where today you’ll find a memorial to victims of the Great Texas Heat Wave of 2021.
Cato now embodies the spirit of the commons — the renewed emphasis on cooperation and mutual aid that gradually emerged as a solution to 21st century economic and social conditions — as much as any town in America.
Jay Walljasper is co-editor of OnTheCommons.org, and is the author of the new book All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons (The New Press, 2010). He is a Contributing Editor at National Geographic Traveler, a Senior Fellow of the Project for Public Spaces, and a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision.