The Public Good [2]

drinking water

Photo by Kobu Agency on Unsplash

American schoolkids learn that their country has a republican form of government, which means everybody doesn’t get to vote on everything; we vote for people who do the voting for us.[1] But there’s more to the word republic than that:

republic (n.):  c. 1600, “state in which supreme power rests in the people via elected representatives,” from Middle French république (15c.), from Latin respublica (ablative republica) “the common weal, a commonwealth, state, republic,” literally res publica “public interest, the state,” from res “affair, matter, thing” (see re) + publica, fem. of publicus “public” (see public (adj.)). Republic of letters attested from 1702.

Etymology Online.

Publica (the people, the state) + Res (affair, matter, thing) = “the people’s stuff.” The republican state holds the people’s stuff in trust, and its elected representatives, as trustees, administer it for the public benefit. That’s the plan, anyway. A more elegant term for “the public’s stuff” is “commonwealth”:

commonwealth (n.):  mid-15c., commoun welthe, “a community, whole body of people in a state,” from common (adj.) + wealth (n.). Specifically “state with a republican or democratic form of government” from 1610s. From 1550s as “any body of persons united by some common interest.” Applied specifically to the government of England in the period 1649-1660, and later to self-governing former colonies under the British crown (1917). In the U.S., it forms a part of the official name of Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Virginia, Kentucky, and Puerto Rico but has no special significance.

Etymology Online

Several online searches turned up a surprisingly long and illuminating list of things that are or used to be considered part of the common wealth trust portfolio. For example:

  • education
  • news
  • law
  • governmental administrative functions
  • healthcare
  • childcare
  • clean water
  • clean air
  • certain interior spaces
  • certain exterior spaces — e.g. parks
  • natural wonders
  • shoreline and beaches
  • mail and home/rural delivery service
  • trash removal
  • public toilets
  • sewage processing
  • food, clothing, and shelter
  • heat and lights
  • streets, roads, highways
  • public transportation
  • freight shipping
  • telephone and telegraph
  • pest control
  • use of public lands/wilderness access
  • the “right to roam”
  • the “right to glean” unharvested crops
  • the right to use fallen timber for firewood
  • defense
  • police and fire
  • handicapped access

Some people argue for the inclusion of additional, more contemporary items on the list:

  • information
  • internet access
  • net neutrality
  • open source software
  • email
  • fax
  • computers
  • cell phones
  • the “creative commons”
  • racial, gender, national, and other forms of equality
  • birth control
  • environmental protection
  • response to climate change

The res publica is made up of those goods, services, and places everybody is entitled to just by being human, or by being a citizen or member of the applicable socio-cultural institution. Somebody’s got to administer all that, and somebody’s got to pay for it. Plus, as we saw last time, there are competing private interests as well.

You’ve heard of technological singularity — the point at which technology overtakes human ability — e.g., artificial intelligence and machine learning. Nowadays, administration of both private interests and the commonwealth has been delegated to a near-universal economic singularity:  the “free” market, carried out in the form of American-style capitalism, as also exported to the rest of the world. Superstar Italian-American economist Mariana Mazzucato[2] thinks this practice has skewed the private/public balance to the point where the commonwealth has been eliminated from policy-making:

“[Government is] an actor that has done more than it has been given credit for, and whose ability to produce value has been seriously underestimated – and this has in effect enabled others to have a stronger claim on their wealth creation role. But it is hard to make the pitch for government when the term ‘public value’ doesn’t even currently exist in economics. It is assumed that value is created in the private sector; at best, the public ‘enable’ [that privately created] value.

“There is of course the important concept of ‘public goods’ in economics — goods whose production benefits everyone, and which hence require public provision since they are under-produced by the private sector.

“… the story goes [that] government should simply focus on creating the conditions that allow businesses to invest and on maintaining the fundamentals for a prosperous economy:  the protection of private property, investments in infrastructure, the rule of law, an efficient patenting system. After that, it must get out of the way. Know its place. Not interfere too much. Not regulate too much. Importantly, we are told, government does not ‘create value’; it simply ‘facilitates’ its creation and — if allowed — redistributes value through taxation. Such ideas are carefully crafted, eloquently expressed and persuasive. This has resulted in the view that pervades society today:  government is a drain on the energy of the market, and ever-present threat to the dynamism of the private sector.”

The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths (Rev. 2018) See also The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy (2018)

Prof. Mazzucato isn’t the only one concerned about this. When Occupy Wall Street puts up its “We are the 99%” sign, when voters support populist politicians[3], when French farmers don yellow vests and riot in Paris, when Malala Yousafzai advocates for educational opportunity, when Greta Thunberg scolds world leaders on climate change… all these are advancing their own responses to the current public/private balance.

In the search for remedies, the younger generation is more likely than their elders to reject populist nationalist politics and private capitalist solutions, and to push instead for an expanded commonwealth administered under a new version of an economic system many of their elders consider an economic dirty word.

More on that next time.

[1] Pure democracy — all those ballot initiatives — has joined republican lawmaking since California’s 1978 Proposition 13.

[2] The Times called her “the world’s scariest economist.”

[3] Here’s a list from the BBC of European nationalist politicians.

Can The Rich Save The World?

adam Smith

Adam Smith didn’t think so.

“For while Smith might be publicly lauded by those who put their faith in private capitalist enterprise, and who decry the state as the chief threat to liberty and prosperity, the real Adam Smith painted a rather different picture. According to Smith, the most pressing dangers came not from the state acting alone, but the state when captured by merchant elites.

“Political actors, Smith claimed, were liable to be swept up by a ‘spirit of system’, which made them fall in love with abstract plans, which they hoped would introduce sweeping beneficial reform. Usually the motivations behind these plans were perfectly noble: a genuine desire to improve society. The problem, however, was that the ‘spirit of system’ blinded individuals to the harsh complexities of real-world change.

“What Smith is saying is that … the ‘spirit of system’ infects politicians with a messianic moral certainty that their reforms are so necessary and justified that almost any price is worth paying to achieve them.”

The Real Adam Smith, Aeon Magazine (January 16, 2018).

Smith had little faith in the free market’s altruism:

“Smith was, however, deeply pessimistic about the stranglehold that the merchants had managed to exert over European politics, and despaired of it ever being loosened. Accordingly, he labelled his preferred alternative – of liberal markets generating wealth to be passed on to all members of society – a ‘Utopia’ that would never come to pass.”[1]

The Real Adam Smith

Today’s “philanthrocapitalists” would beg to differ. Their social and economic charter originated in the 1990’s, under President Clinton’s leadership. Post-WWII neoliberalism had begun to fatigue in the 70’s, and the tide had turned against the 80’s social conservatism. Clinton and his U.K. counterpart Tony Blair offered a mix of conservative economics with social liberalism:

“As much as possible, they preferred a progressive politics that channelled private initiative, and the logic of philanthrocapitalism was pleasingly straightforward. Since the rich were getting richer, they had more money to throw around. The lure of yet more lucre could now be used to steer them into sinking some of this new wealth into the poorest communities, something touted by Clinton late in his presidency when he went on a four-day ‘new markets’ tour of deprived American neighbourhoods. Urging the super-rich to do some good with a portion of their rapidly growing prosperity, Clinton told them that a better world would make them richer yet. ‘Every time we hire a young person off the street in Watts and give him or her a better future,’ he said, ‘we are helping people who live in the ritziest suburb in America to continue to enjoy a rising stock market.’”

Economics As A Moral Tale, Aeon Magazine (Jan. 9, 2019) [2]

The rich and famous jumped on board, and the rest of the 90’s into the 2000’s, private foundations were a growth industry. The Economist’s Matthew Bishop and development pro Michael Green  wrote the book on the topic, with a foreword from Bill Clinton:  Philanthrocapitalism: How Giving Can Save the World (2009). The book blurb captured the spirit of the approach and the times:

“For philanthropists of the past, charity was often a matter of simply giving money away. For the philanthrocapitalists – the new generation of billionaires who are reshaping the way they give – it’s like business. Largely trained in the corporate world, these “social investors” are using big-business-style strategies and expecting results and accountability to match. Bill Gates, the world’s richest man, is leading the way: he has promised his entire fortune to finding a cure for the diseases that kill millions of children in the poorest countries in the world.

“In Philanthrocapitalism, Matthew Bishop and Michael Green examine this new movement and its implications. Proceeding from interviews with some of the most powerful people on the planet―including Gates, Bill Clinton, George Soros, Angelina Jolie, and Bono, among others―they show how a web of wealthy, motivated donors has set out to change the world. Their results will have huge implications: In a climate resistant to government spending on social causes, their focused donations may be the greatest force for societal change in our world, and a source of political controversy.”

Maybe philanthrocapitalism’s greatest appeal was that it offered a fresh, inspiring story:

“At heart, philanthrocapitalism offered not a new science of development, but an old-fashioned moral tale – one in which a hero, who would reveal himself by some magnificent achievement, would come along to save us from some peril.”[3]

Everybody loves a great story, but does this one have a happy ending?

We’ll look at that next time.

[1] Id. For more, journalist and social commentator Chris Hedges thoroughly and adamantly deconstructs and debunks secular and religious utopian thinking in his book I Don’t Believe in Atheists, which he wrote after debating Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens — two of the “four horsemen” of the “new atheism.” His analysis explains why utopias invariably crash into dystopias. If that topic interests you, I’ve been writing about it in my Iconoclas.blog, and you might like to check it out.

[2] The author is John Rapley, academician, world development expert, journalist, and government advisor. His latest book is  Twilight of the Money Gods: Economics as a Religion and How it all Went Wrong (2017).

[3] Id.