Public goods morphing through the ages: the case of Abbotsford Convent

Restoration work at the Abbotsford Convent is ongoing. Picture: Derrick den HollanderThe people at Abbotsford Convent asked me to pen a ‘shout’ for their fundraising campaign. I’d recently been on a tour of the place, and though I’d been there before and wandered around curiously, on the tour I was transported by a Big Idea, though those who’ve read my stuff here will know that the Big Idea is just a variation on my general way of looking at the world – as an ecology of public and private goods. So I told them I’d write them a bit more than a ‘shout’ and write them a ‘foreword’ length piece which, having been published in Their fundraising brochure, Heritage Reinvented – Let’s Finish The Job, duly appears below.

I’ve already given to the fundraising campaign, but would be happy to match anyone else’s donation up to an additional $1,000. Just email me on ngruen at gmail and I’ll send you instructions.

From economic textbooks to informal popular usage – public goods are supposed to be provided by governments, private goods by the market. But that’s never been true.

Though he never used the term, economics’ founder Adam Smith put public goods at the centre of the good society. Smith asked where social mores came from – for they’re the glue that holds together groups of people from families, firms and football teams right through to the family of nations.

His first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments answered that social mores were an emergent property of life itself. Culture in this schema is an emergent public good. So too is language. And governments built neither.

Another emergent public good is religion. It binds its adherents together. And particularly in Europe, religious institutions provided all manner of public goods from arts patronage and the preservation of learning and heritage to poor relief, from schools to hospitals.

And so when I went on a tour of Abbotsford Convent I saw miracles of translation – across continents and across the millennia. The French Order of Our Lady of Charity reached across the oceans investing some of its vast reserves of capital – of treasure and knowhow – to build a public good institution for the nascent colony of Victoria.

Yet before long that investment was stranded, increasingly anachronistic in a changed world in which religion had declined and governments were dominating public good provision.

As Abbotsford Convent’s potency in providing public goods atrophied, a burning question arose. What would we make of its legacy?

The site made a promising investment for private property development. But privatisation would also compromise much – though not all – of its public good value. Or it could continue in the ownership of a proud community, eager to rebuild and reinterpret its role as provider of public goods.

Ten years on, how thankful we all are that the latter, more immediately difficult course was chosen.

I don’t know about you but I’ll be giving generously to this appeal, grateful for the vision and love of others stretching back through 2004 to the founding of the Order of Our Lady of Charity in seventeenth century France.

Lentil as Anything: a good name for a very delicious vegetarian café inhabiting some buildings from the old convent.

This offer can’t last: in fact it won’t last and is off after Friday 20th Feb. NG

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Peter Rendell
Peter Rendell
9 years ago

I am interested in donating $100