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Rise and fall of a libertarian utopia

Cato, Texas, seen as it looked in 2012, the height of its fame as an experiment as in extreme individualism. At that time the town offered no government services and very few civic organizations. (Credit: Photo by Walmart Stores under a Creative Commons license from flickr.com)Cato, Texas, seen as it looked in 2012, the height of its fame as an experiment as in extreme individualism. At that time the town offered no government services and very few civic organizations. (Credit: Photo by Walmart Stores under a Creative Commons license from flickr.com)Movements don’t live on bright ideas and hard work alone. Martin Luther King Jr. said that movements need to offer people a portrait of what the future could look like. So here is a vision of a commons-based society of the future, rising out of the ashes of greedy individualism in a gated community outside Houston. Excerpted from On the Commons’ new book All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons (The New Press)

From the Wall Street Journal-Fox-National Review Information Link

26 May 2035 1:15:29 p.m.

PLATO, TX (USA)— Libertarians, with their revulsion of government and worship of greedy individualism, dominated politics in the U.S. from the 1980s until the second decade of the 21st Century.

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 decisionmaking at every level of society. They ascribed almost mystical powers to the market, and invoked its wisdom as if this economic theory was 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 Republic 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 libertarian policies enacted over the previous thirty years were undermining economic security, community wealth, environmental quality and cooperative spirit for 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 and that government is essentially our enemy—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 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.”

Commons Regained

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 baby-sitting co-op, youth mentoring programs, neighborhood tool exchanges, 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 recently 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.

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