Sunday, November 16, 2014

Nobody Owns the Beach

In Hawaii, nobody owns the beach.

Nobody can own the beach. Lots of people and hotels own land right next to the beach, but they can't own the beach. There are sections of waterfront in Hawaii that are rather isolated and rugged, like a beautiful blasted moonscape. A private investor, given the chance, could probably make something cool out of them. And there are periodically flaps in Hawaii when some private property owner tries to interfere with access to the beach (military bases feel the need, as one might expect, to control access to the beaches that are part of the base). But nobody owns the beach in Hawaii.

That's because your government recognizes that certain resources are a public good and need to be maintained as public goods. So even when somebody offers to "manage" that public good for you, just for a cut of the take, that doesn't happen. Because as soon as a public resource becomes a way of enriching private interests, the public interest in that resource takes a back seat.

So nobody owns the beach.

Oddly enough, by keeping the beach a public good, lots of private interests can benefit. Hundreds and hundreds of businesses set up within arm's reach of the water, many and varied in size and style. Development in Hawaii is a tricky thing-- businesses jockey for position and an old friend told me that the International Market in Honolulu was finally going to be squeezed out by big money. When that kind of rapacious development gets going, the battle for marketable square feet gets fierce, and small players get pushed aside by the people with the big money and power. And of course the more money and power you have, the more money and power you get.

But nobody can own the beach.

Suppose the state starting slicing up the beach, offering special charters to private beach operators. Would that make the beaches better? Would the public be served by charter operators scrambling to get the best sand? Or would they be reduced to marketing themselves as the beach where you found the kind of people you like, but none of Those People? Would charter operators scramble to buy each other out, to raise the stakes so that small operators with good ideas could never get involved? Would the public good be pushed back by operators who were irritated and resentful every time these customers Wanted Something, cutting into the charter beach's profits? Think about resort areas where nobody can so much as look at the ocean without paying somebody to do it. How well does that serve the public?

Thank goodness nobody can own the beach.

Are public beaches a perfect metaphor for public schools? I'm going to say no before I have to explain which part of the beach I am. But Hawaiian beaches are a good example of the challenges of preserving and protecting a public resource, a trust that exists for the public good. And that idea of a public resources, public service and public trust-- that's not a metaphor for public education. It is public education.


  1. Great minds think alike--

  2. And like national forests. I didn't know that about Hawaii. I always learn something from your posts.

  3. I very much enjoyed your analogy. I am a new blogger (1 whole week) and would like to repost this. Please let me know if this is OK.

    1. It looks like you're off to a good start. Excerpt with link is always a fine way to go with reblogging a post. As long as there's attribution and linkage, you're always welcome to pass along anything that appeals to you here.