A Politics of Public Goods

In recent posts I wrote about the “paradox of public goods” – the invisibility to many people of the government goods and services that they enjoy every day, even while they disparage “government” in general.  And I described the “pathology of ideological marketization” that has sought to degrade the capabilities of government while handing over billions of taxpayer dollars to corporate contractors. Last week I described the narrow and negative view that mainstream economic theory takes of public goods and the real-world harm that has resulted.

Today I want to argue that we need to restore the positive concept of public goods that existed decades ago. We must take back the term from the radical right and libertarian demolitionists of government in order to revitalize democracy in service to the 99%. In short, we need “a politics of public goods.”  A fully positive concept of “public goods” can anchor an appealing, progressive vocabulary whose coherence can change public discourse and impact the collective choices of ordinary voters.  

Progressives writing about problems in America today often lament the lack of a vocabulary that effectively represents liberal causes and resonates with the public. They’re right. There is no such semantic tent under which to gather all the disparate and unorganized progressive interests.

But the lack of a conceptual frame and common vocabulary is more than a semantic issue. It is also a political issue, because it impedes concerted action.

Words and Concepts Matter

Semantics influence thoughts and acts. This is particularly true in the case of the pervasive impact of  market-fundamentalist economics in the US (and throughout the world). Here’s what some scholars have said about the importance of the semantics of economics:

  • Richard Musgrave, a scholar of public goods, warned in the 1960’s, after Robert Samuelson’s problematic definition of public goods caught on: “Semantics, as the history of economic thought so well shows, is not a trivial matter.” In the economics from which Musgrave’s scholarship emerged, “The public sector is not seen as a necessary evil whose optimal size is determined by the idea that it should be kept to a minimum.” [Emphasis added.]
  • In his 2012 book The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets since the Depression, Angus Burgin concludes that, "for better or for worse, we now live in an era in which economists have become our most influential philosophers, and when decisions made or advised by economist technocrats have broad and palpable influence on the practice of our everyday lives."
  • And of course we have from John Maynard Keynes his aphorism that "practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist."

In testimony to the truth of Keynes’ warning, a January 2013 New York Times obituary on James Buchanan, the leading proponent of market-fundamentalist “public choice theory,” noted that his beliefs “shaped a generation of conservative thinking about deficits, taxes and the size of government.”

As Michael Lynch said in a recent New York Times piece on “Democracy After Shutdown:” “If government is the problem, shutting it down is a logical solution. We need to confront that idea.”

Yes, we do need to confront it, and with a positive, alternative strategy.

A New Public Discourse and a New Politics

George Lakoff has been telling progressives for years that we need a new and powerful “frame” to counter the market-fundamentalist frame that predominates today. Yet we still have no term in common parlance that connotes the positive force and value of government services, or that encompasses the entire panoply of what government does. (Public Works, an organization that spun off from Demos, has done some of the best messaging research and education in this area.)

Instead of any reference to “public goods,” what we hear in public discourse -- from pundits, politicians, and social media – is claims of the virtues of “free enterprise,” “free markets,” “free trade,” ”deregulation,”  privatization,” and how “government is the problem.”

While “the market” is sanctified, government is denigrated and defunded.

The most recent example of the absence of a unifying theme is the Faces of Austerity report issued last week by “NDD United.” An important and masterful summary of the destructive impacts of the sequester on individual lives, the report talks throughout about “NDD,” meaning “non-defense discretionary” programs. “NDD” is not a term that will fire up the imaginations or the rhetoric of those who would end the sequester.

To be sure, a new term by itself won’t turn around the politics of this nation. Certainly, the wealthy and corporations still buy off politicians. Of course lobbyists exert tremendous power and, yes, we need campaign finance reform. Meanwhile the Right is handily disenfranchising people of color, women, students and the poor.

But I am arguing for another, essential, strategy: to reform public and political discourse as a means of furthering all those other agendas.  We need a common language to celebrate and spotlight the positive forces of government that make for our common well-being.

Progressives need to restore the legitimacy of the public economy and make people aware of the myriad public goods they get, use and benefit from every day.  We need to organize a politics of public goods.

In a future post, I’ll say more about how this might happen.