Thursday, June 29, 2017

A Public Office Is a Public Lust

(If I recall correctly, the title of this post comes from an Edward Sorel cartoon published during Richard Nixon's first term as President: it was the caption accompanying a drawing of Nixon, dressed like Napoleon, admiring himself in a full-length mirror.)

Last week I was leery of part of a post by Janine Jackson, in which she criticized the corporate media for their failure "to fulfill their obligation to serve the public interest."  I asked how anyone knows what the public interest is, and who gets to decide whether a given news organ is serving it or not.  If anything, the whole rationale of freedom of the press is to protect expression from government imposing an official line on what is said or published.

So I was a bit startled this morning when Democracy Now! played a clip of James Buchanan, a right-wing economist popular among Republican ideologues.
JAMES BUCHANAN: There’s certainly no measurable concept that meaningful—that could be called the public interest, because how do you weigh different interests of different groups and what they can get out of it? The public interest, as a politician thinks, it does not mean it exists. It’s what he thinks is good for the country. And to—if he would come out and say that, that’s one thing. But behind this hypocrisy of calling something "the public interest" as if it exists is—that’s—that’s what I was trying to tear down.
Should I be upset that I agreed with some of this diatribe?  The guest Nermeen Shaykh was interviewing, historian Nancy Maclean, was quite upset by it.
NANCY MacLEAN: ... I just want to underscore for listeners those words: "That’s what I wanted to tear down," the idea of a public interest. You know, when we try to understand the mayhem that’s unfolding all around us, the ugliness that’s out there, the gross, you know, aspersions on people’s character who are trying to, you know, help people in our society—right?—and make a better country, that’s where this comes from. So that was Buchanan’s idea, yes, is that we’re all just self-interested actors, and nobody is telling the truth.
I'm not so sure about this.  For one thing, Trump also pretends that he cares about his subjects, that he wants to take care of them, to protect their jobs; he promised not to cut Medicare or Medicaid.  He pretends that he wants to protect the Homeland from internal and external enemies.  So do most of the Republican leadership.  They pretend that they want to replace the Affordable Care Act with something that do a better job of providing them with affordable health care.  They're lying, of course.  But then so are the Democrats, who've not only shown their willingness to undermine the well-being of most Americans in favor of corporate elites, but have been no less busy than Trump indulging in ugliness, casting aspersions on people's character, and so on.  So Professor MacLean is being less than fully candid herself.

I think the first truth that ought to be recognized is that while we can honestly talk about the good and the interests of varying pluralities and majorities, it is probably impossible to satisfy everyone.  There will always be a tradeoff between the good of some and the good of others.  To speak of the public good or the public interest is disingenuous unless the speaker acknowledges that one person's good may not be so good for another.  In that sense Buchanan is quite right.

But to be fully honest about the interests James Buchanan and Republican and Democratic elites want to advance and serve would lead to problems.  I think that one reason politicians and corporate elites talk glowingly about the public good is that even they don't want to see themselves as the rapacious greedheads that they are.  Still, they often let their utter selfishness slip.  Which is fine, but they are always surprised when other people's selfishness is poised to clash with theirs.  Capitalists want state -- which is to say, public -- support and subsidy, not to mention immunity for the crimes they commit.  They want, in other words, other people to take care of them.  And by Buchanan's criteria, why should we do so?  Why should I care whether Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates or Steve Jobs or Jamie Dimon makes another billion dollars?  When pressed, they often splutter that they aren't just thinking of themselves: they resort to the dogma that while entrepreneurs may be selfish the free market (another fiction as mythical as "the public good") is good for everybody -- that the public good is served by their greed, that a rising tide lifts all boats, and so on.

I'll gladly abandon the concept of the public good, if the capitalists will.  But they won't: it's a smokescreen they find very useful.  Nor will they abandon the myth of the market.  I think we can -- or we had better -- find ways to talk about the needs and wishes of most people, to discuss public policy in meaningful ways, while remaining honest.  If not, there's no reason why the majority of people should let Buchanan, Trump, the Clintons, or all the other corrupt elites enjoy their ill-gotten gains.  That would probably lead to chaos and horrible destruction, but so, it seems, will the path Buchanan would prefer that we follow.  That will lead us to a plutocracy, a kleptocracy, even worse than the one that currently rules the country.  The rich can buy (and have bought) their own private police forces and armies; they can and do run their own propaganda agencies.  It's hard for those with other interests to match their clout.

And those who want, despite everything, to talk about the Public Good had better be as specific as possible about exactly which public they mean, and why other segments of the public aren't included.