On April 10, Sen. Bernie Sanders on MSNBC said that housing is human infrastructure. Yes, in that it provides the basis for a person to work and function.
But neither Sanders nor the host noted the crucial distinction between what each person or family should obtain for themselves and what is to be publicly provided. It’s not so easy to argue that each person should arrange and pay for a road in front of his house (though my town says so for sidewalks). There is a long tradition in the United States that individuals or families should provide their own private framework for life: their residence, clothes, household supplies, furniture, means of transportation and the like, things that become their personal property (owned or controlled via rental). What Sanders called “human infrastructure” is not usually so labeled or publicly supplied.
Let me take a wider view. Many things may properly be called public or common goods, including an educated, healthy, and competent citizenry. The narrow use of “public good” is limited to what cannot or only with difficulty be supplied for one and not another citizen, such as clean air and water. I note, however, that often toxic chemical plants are located near poorer neighborhoods. But for every public good, the question may be raised: What is the proper way to achieve this goal?
In my first book I discuss the dueling slogans, YOYO and WITT (“You’re on your own” and “We’re in this together”). There is a spectrum that we can describe between complete communism (all things held in common) and complete group or individual private ownership (all roads would be privately owned and be charged for their use). The matter of ownership is distinct from who or what provides the good. Charities and nonprofits may provide goods that are then owned by individuals. But we need not here explore variations and hybrids. In the United States, there is an emphasis on personal liberty that results in a minimum of government mandates and benefits for individuals or families. But here we do require, for example, that every child receive several years of education.
The debate about the “true definition” of the word “infrastructure” is hopeless and puerile. As my mention above of competing slogans indicates, the deeper issue is the character of our culture. Do we want to provide an ample safety net to everyone or is this counterproductive or against the proper function of government? Helping with child care or community college is a key ideological issue to be settled by finding what values are sufficiently shared to enable legislation. Republican rhetoric about the extreme left indicates they do not want to help. Also, apparently respectable criticism can be outrageous: one critic said that the Democrats just took a dollar amount out of the air instead of doing the work to see what is needed. While it is true that estimates are needed, I’m sure the Democrats did an honest calculation.
Since we now live in a time of extreme partisanship mostly resulting from a hard right turn by the Republicans, many issues formerly mostly bipartisan are now partisan in a toxic way. Especially, preserving and enhancing voter rights should not be based on tribal party motives. The renewal in the 1990s of the main voting rights law was unanimous in the Senate.
Nevertheless, in late July, a bipartisan agreement was reached under which enough Republicans voted to allow an infrastructure bill to come up for discussion and hence eventual approval in the Senate. This bill excludes most items that have been called “human” or “social” infrastructure. The bill was passed in early August with 19 Republican votes.
President Biden and Democratic Congressional leaders have now passed in the House a separate bill that will be handled in the Senate through reconciliation, an arcane process that allows budget adjustments outside of the filibuster rules. The bill includes a variety of Democratic objectives excluded from the prior bill, especially on the climate problem, child care, and education. There is also a tax increase on corporations and the very wealthy. Since there is likely to be no Republican support, the dollar amount may need adjustment to gain the votes of every Democrat.
Ed Abegg is philosophy professor emeritus at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania and author of Political Morality in a Disenchanted World and Engaging the World.