Persistent Problem

The Public and its Problems by John Dewey. 1927. Henry Holt and Co (I read the 2016 edition, Melvin Rodgers, ed., from Ohio University Press, Kindle version)

Private Government by Elizabeth Anderson. 2017. Princeton University Press (Kindle edition)

I found Dewey’s book particularly interesting because the ideas seemed so familiar to me. I grew up among adults whose ideas about politics were shaped by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Much of what Dewey says about the public interest fits well with the ideas that inspired the great social and political changes of the 1930s. 

Dewey begins this series of lectures by distinguishing between the public and the private, explaining how the public interest arises from within a society, and then stating that the proper role of government is to protect the public interest. Public interest arises whenever the actions of individuals or groups have effects beyond the parties involved. Generally speaking, actions that have no detrimental effect on anyone outside the participants involved are seen as private. Private activities, like a family farming a piece of land, a cobbler making and selling shoes, or a group of birdwatchers forming a club to share their interest are private activities. Any society has untold numbers of such associations from transient and casual exchanges to more or less permanent institutions. These need not have an impact on anybody outside themselves. But some enterprises may pollute the air we all breathe, others create harmful products, and some associations, like terrorist cells, threaten severe harm. For this reason, people perceive a need for an association with the authority and power to enforce limits on such activities.

At the time this nation was founded, these principles were enshrined in the Declaration and Constitution as the instruments on which our government was based. At the time there was little need for a large and powerful national government, beyond what was essential to defend against external threats and internal disagreements. Most commercial and industrial activities were viewed as not needing to be regulated or controlled, but if anything, to be encouraged and supported. Likewise, individuals were expected to be self-reliant, and what services could not be supplied individually could be provided at the local or possibly the state level. 

According to Dewey, America has come a long way since the late eighteenth century, still believing that free markets and individual enterprise will lead to the greatest society. He thought that belief was wrong in 1927 and I agree, even more so today. The free market did indeed lead to a great economy, an economy so huge, powerful and productive that our government is incapable of protecting the public interest. The wealthy elites, who have gained the most from the growth of the economy, are able to manipulate the public directly through media they control and through advertising, and also indirectly by capturing the government’s power to serve themselves. 

The troubles of our society, its failure to achieve a level of public good commensurate with the productivity of our economy, isn’t because we have let our values slip. Nobody ever was so public spirited as we imagine people used to be. What’s lacking, says Dewey, is public understanding of what’s really going on and a commitment to act on that information to reassert the public interest.

Dewey thought education informed by well executed social science research would correct this. He believed even in 1927 that we had enough ways to reach the public via radio and newspapers. Though he constantly reminded his readers that every mechanism can be turned to private interest, I think he thought public institutions and public-spirited private organizations could counterbalance that. What did he think after WWII, when it was clear that propaganda could work so well? And have the social sciences come through? They get used to support narrow interests. Even the most public-spirited research on topics like firearms and sexuality sometimes get suppressed by our own legislators. 

Education can be captured by the individual interests of teachers, administrators or publishers, etc. I do think that some issues have been presented to the public more effectively, or maybe the public is more receptive. Climate change or environment in general, compared to issues like immigration, guns, diet or sex, where really personal emotions get aroused, seem more widely supported. There’s very little advertising claiming that pollution is good for us, but much of what we believe about those other issues is conditioned by propaganda or advertising. 

Anderson’s book is a short case study of what happens when government fails to protect the interest of the public and even abets those who take advantage of others. Once again, a large part of the problem is the myth that individual freedom and enterprise are the best way to ensure that everyone’s interests are respected and society as a whole is better off. We continue to invoke Adam Smith’s idea of the magic of the market at a time when the economic environment bears no resemblance to what he was thinking of. Smith never imagined corporations on the scale of Amazon or Walmart. 

Although it is true that individuals are free to sell their labor to whomever they choose, in most places, current law assumes that unless otherwise specified in a contract, employment is at will, meaning you can quit anytime and the employer can fire you at any time, without giving any reason. This allows employers to impose all sorts of restrictions on workers, even outside the workplace. Bathroom breaks, for example, can be denied, unless specific laws or regulations say otherwise.

What struck me was how much the conditions in some workplaces Anderson discusses resembled those of the Virginia Company, described in my post on Stephen Hopkins. The big difference is that at that time the company could impose penalties, including death, on anyone violating the rules. Today, about the worst is being fired, but there are included more and more often in contracts, non-compete clauses that mean you can’t get another job in the same industry. Even fast-food places, according to Anderson, now have those. It’s a neat way to hold workers prisoner almost as much as in the past. Like William Strachey, modern bosses can impose arbitrary rules, engage in intrusive surveillance and generally treat their workers with a lack of respect for their humanity.

Anderson is clearly onto the thing that Dewey was worried about: the failure of government to protect the public interest against the power of modern associations, specifically corporations. Unless you think it’s in the public interest to have poultry workers denied sick leave or bathroom breaks, to have parents of young children working on flextime schedules that make it impossible to arrange childcare or doctor visits, and people in general stuck in jobs they hate because of non-compete clauses, something needs to be done. 

There are several possible routes. One is more regulations imposed by government on conditions of employment. Certainly, mandatory bathroom breaks, sick leave, parental leave and limitations on abuses of flextime and non-compete clauses seem to be very desirable. A comprehensive workers’ bill of rights, covering all the things we feel are necessary to health, safety, community well-being and human dignity is greatly needed in this country. Such general protections, however, can’t cover every aspect of employer-employee relations. It would be impossible to write rules covering every industry. 

A second approach is to require employers to operate only under a system of explicit rules, known in advance, applied equally to everyone doing the same work, with due process rights, and leaving things not covered to the discretion of the employee. Such a system would be much better for employees, but it might deprive employers of essential flexibility in running the business. I think it’s a good way, though, to deal with general issues that apply to many workers, as long as they are applied consistently.

The third approach, the one favored by Anderson, is to give workers a role in governance. Currently, less than 10% of private sector workers are unionized. Anderson thinks that there are some disadvantages to unions, specifically their adversarial relationship with management. Anderson reports that 85% of American workers desire joint governance shared by employees and employers. She likes the German model, where workers are represented on the board of the corporation. In the U.S. such “company unions” are illegal.

So where are we headed as far as asserting the public interest? I’m not at all sure. Certainly, no political party is free from the influence of powerful special interests. In addition, at least since Ronald Reagan, many Americans have seen government as not in their interest, even when without it, they are pretty much helpless against corporations, including their own employers. I worry that despite our vast power to communicate, propaganda, rumor and hate overwhelm real information about our situation. I find myself constantly wanting to make the various environmental groups, including those I support, tone down their anti-business rhetoric and scare tactics. Focus on the scientific facts, I keep thinking, and spare me the news that we’re all about to starve, swelter or lose every living species.

I’d like to see more academics, especially scientists and social scientists, to become involved in both educating the public and shaping public policies. Climate scientists have done a good job of hanging in there, in spite of severe pushback. If scientists studying sexuality, women’s health, fetal, infant and child development, gun violence, biodiversity loss, etc. were as effective, we might make progress.

Academics, at least tenured and tenured track faculty, are among the most fortunate employees in America. Due process rights and the presumption of academic freedom to teach, research and publish, along with a tradition of collegial governance mean we enjoy much less restrictive working conditions than most. Not that administrators and trustees haven’t tried to reduce those protections. The vast expansion of contingent faculty, working burdensome schedules for tiny salaries, under employment-at-will conditions, are proof of that. Nevertheless, academics form a uniquely privileged group. It seems only fair for the public to expect something in return, especially since tuition dollars, state appropriations and federal support of both education and research form their main sources of funds. Too many academics shun public involvement, claiming that pure research is their greatest contribution. There is some truth in this, but I think a lot of it is just conceit and a desire to be judged only by peers and not by the public.

Humanities faculty also have a duty to contribute to discussions of the public good. Thought it is important to correct historic wrongs and make people aware of the less than creditable aspects of our tradition, the current cultural warfare is of little benefit to anyone. I think there are ways of bringing these issues to light, without dividing the current public into victims and oppressors. Anderson herself exemplifies the way a committed professor of philosophy and women’s studies can contribute to dispelling some of the myths that surround the free market.

These were two excellent books, and it’s well worth thinking about the problems they present.

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