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Life in the Commonwealth

Commentator Bill Harley lives in the town of Seekonk. That's in Bristol County, in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. And recently, he was reminded of the role his town plays in the commonwealth.


Big, fancy sports stadiums don't come cheap. Often they're financed in part by local taxpayers, just like the new Cardinals Stadium. Commentator Bill Harley thinks that in the unlikely event of a big stadium project coming to his small town, his fellow citizens would never want to pay for it.

BILL HARLEY: One Saturday, I drove over to the town library to bring back some books. It was closed, so I put them in the return receptacles. I had forgotten the library was closed on Saturdays now. It's closed because voters in my little town voted against raising taxes.

We're also closing an elementary school, letting teachers go and wrestling over reduced police, fire and emergency services. We simply can't afford them, a lot of people said.

But it was the closed doors of the library that got me thinking about commonwealth. The message of the voters here and in other places seems to be that we simply can't afford to do things together anymore. Maybe it's a good thing libraries exist now because with our attitude, we would never start them today.

Imagine there were no libraries. And imagine someone saying hey, I've got a great idea. Let's get the government and business and people to give a bunch of money and we'll build a building and in it we'll put books and recordings and movies and magazines and computers and anyone can use them. For free. People would say, are you out of your mind?

Publishing companies would say it, and so would music industry executives and software designers. All the people complaining about copyright infringement and downloading on the Internet. People concerned about some form of creeping socialism would say it. And people who are tired of paying taxes would say it.

Somehow the idea of raising taxes has become un-American. Don't tread on me, a motto from my state's history, carries a whole new meaning today.

But while I drove back from the closed library, I was thinking something else. There are some things we can do together that we can't do apart. The ownership society with everyone taking care of themselves only goes so far. Some of us can afford our own books or DVDs, but they do no good sitting on the shelf unused. I can pave my driveway, but not my street. I can't afford to have my own fire truck or ambulance waiting for a private emergency. And kids learn better when there are fewer than 30 of them in a classroom.

Raising taxes and sharing resources now seems somehow un-American. Or at least encouraging of copyright infringement. But democracy works better when all citizens have access to information and some basic services. In that sense, an open library door paid for by all of us symbolizes the heart of what we say we hold dear. That's what commonwealth is. The problem is that commonwealth still costs each of us something.

NORRIS: Bill Harley lives in the town of Seekonk. That's in Bristol County, in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

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