Remaking America: Public Institutions and the Public Good

Craig Calhoun, Social Science Research Council and New York University

President Obama promises not just to stimulate the economy, but at the same time to remake America. He proposes to do this by making the government a more effective provider of public services and a more effective partner to private organizations that pursue the public good. His stimulus plan is an amalgam of dozens of different specific programs designed to minister to different needs through different agencies. It contains more new programs than conservatives want to see and more tax cuts than liberals want to see. What it doesn’t contain is a clear narrative that makes the whole coherent and meaningful.

Since Obama is a masterful rhetorician, we can expect a story to be woven around the stimulus plan. It isn’t a bad thing that it is seen as relentlessly pragmatic and as containing nods to many different issues and constituencies. Both pragmatism and inclusivity are part of the message to which Obama has committed his presidency. But I want to suggest an important substantive message that is implicit in the stimulus package and explicit in some of Obama’s other statements. He needs to speak clearly about restoring the ideas of the public, and the public good, to centrality in the consideration and implementation of public policy.

Every politician speaks of the public good, of course, and the phrase ‘public policy’ is routine. But in fact, the very idea of the public good has deteriorated as a category in American policy-making. What has replaced it is the notion of larger or smaller aggregations of private goods. But the public good is not simply private goods for the majority of Americans (though there is nothing wrong with more private goods). To be a really meaningful concept, the public good has to refer to benefits we share and which, through being shared, help to constitute us as a public or, as an older term has it, a commonwealth.

The notion of commonwealth once flourished, especially in the 18th and early 19th centuries, to call attention to the possibility that society was made by its members for their common benefit—a benefit they could not enjoy simply as private individuals. Its meaning overlapped the ideal of public good, including the Roman notion of res publica: the idea of public matters or things that gave us the word “republic” and from the Renaissance on, a whole republican tradition of civic responsibility and participation. This tradition did not deny the significance of private property or limits on the intrusion of the state into personal life, but it did emphasize that public life offered an extremely important potential of its own, which private life could not match.

Indeed, private life was often understood in this tradition to be a retreat from public life. It is no accident that our term private derives in part from deprivation, or that it is the lowest rank in armies, by contrast to general. In both ancient Rome and the republican tradition that idealized Rome, private life was seen as incomplete. A statesman might retire to private life when he was old, or when he had lost power, but the idea of being a statesman—and indeed a citizen—centered on public life.

What was so important about public life?

The ideal of the public good needs to be understood with a strong emphasis on what makes a public. And what makes a public is creating goods collectively, sharing them, doing so on the basis of people’s equal citizenship not their personal connections, and being open in our communications. We don’t always live up to this ideal, but it is an important one embedded in our understanding of democracy and indeed of America.

Historically, the first sense of “public” had to do with sharing: the shared activity of citizens in creating institutions and making a collective life, and then sharing in that life. Public participation was a creative act. Through speech and deliberation, through collective choice, citizens made their city or their country. This emphasis on public was not at all anti-individualistic. On the contrary, it was precisely individuals who thought they should have something to say about how public affairs were organized and who entered into public discussion.

It is helpful to see what this idea of public, or the republic, was opposed to. It was opposed to tyranny, first of all, in which decision-making was not shared among citizens. It was opposed to the idea that the state, or political leadership in the state, was simply an exercise of power for selfish ends rather than in pursuit of collective benefits. Later, this notion of governance as a creative process, as making the country, was also important in revolutionary societies like America. The founders of the United States did not believe they should simply inherit social institutions from the past; they thought they should make them. Similarly, many argued that the nation they shared was a result of this common labor, not simply inherited as a matter of common ethnicity. This is one reason why the word commonwealth lives on as the formal name of several American states.

So the first sense of public was that citizens created something that they held in common (and lost if they didn’t collectively maintain it). This could be mundane, like a public park. It could be a marketplace kept clean and safe by public action. It could be roads built for both the convenience of private citizens and the prosperity of a whole city or country. It could also be the institutions of government and collective defense, of education and health care, the honoring of heroes and other ceremonial events, the preservation and advance of a common culture.

The second sense of public is more familiar to us from modern economics, though it wasn’t altogether foreign to older republican thinking. This is the idea that some goods are inherently public because we can only enjoy them if we share them. Or put another way, some goods cost a great deal and are not diminished when they are shared, so it is more rational to share both their cost and their use. Clean air and clean water are good examples, but so are many of the goods government tries to deliver, including national defense and emergency services to respond to catastrophes. Of course you can try to get clean water by buying bottled water rather than using public water systems. But this is monstrously inefficient—both for you as an individual and for society in general. It is no accident that the societies considered more developed and advanced and generally better off are those in which more goods are provided publicly. That you can turn on the tap and get clean water almost anywhere in America or Europe is a basic difference from much of Africa, large parts of Asia, and the rest of the world. It is a public achievement.

There is much debate about which goods are public in this second sense, and also about when it makes sense to provide them privately by individual purchase. Most roads in the United States are public; some of them do charge user fees, but the money goes back into roads not to profit. Toll roads have sometimes been private businesses, however, and some still are. Airports may or may not be fully public. Internet services seldom are. Debates over health care turn largely on this issue. It is possible to pay privately for better health care than others have. But a system based mainly on private provision results not only in inequality but also in higher costs—now perhaps a staggering one-sixth of GDP in the US. Indeed, the costs are so high that even most very well-off citizens can only enjoy high levels of medical care by means of sharing—albeit through insurance rather than more completely public mechanisms.

The third sense of public refers to the fact that politics joins strangers to each other. That is, the bonds created in public life are different from those in families or tight-knit communities. This is more true of large countries than the small cities of the Renaissance. But the point is not just that people have never met but that they are not part of the same smaller groups. The public life of the country involves citizens of different ethnic groups, different religions, different regions, different lifestyles. Likewise, the public services the government provides are made available to all, impartially, not just to those in charge or those with connections to them, and not just to those who seem familiar but also to those who seem strange to members of the power elite.

We often speak of our whole society as a family or a community. But in fact it isn’t. It is a collection of many families and many communities. These differ from each other. Some seem strange to each other. Yet all are part of the public created by our common government, our shared social institutions, and our relations with each other. The public good is enjoyed in common by these different people. And, importantly, the government relates to each of these people impartially; government officials aren’t supposed to say “I know this person” or “I like that ethnic group”; they are supposed to provide the same services to all, as strangers.

The fourth sense of public is closely related to this. The public good does not exist separate from the discussions citizens have about what they hold to be good. Experts may inform these debates, but what makes the public good public is that citizens can debate it; they can consider not only what is good but which possible goods should have priority. For this reason, it is important for public communication to be open and for the workings of government to be transparent. When public funds are being spent—as in the stimulus package—the ways in which they are spent should be made clear to citizens.

Why should we care about revitalizing the idea of public good now?

The short answer is that there has been a long and concerted campaign on behalf of private property and private interests. We should think first of individual freedom, many have suggested, rather than collective benefits. And then with embarrassing haste they have translated the freedom of persons into the freedom of property, and the freedom of property into arguments against any sort of regulation (even requirements simply to report honestly and accurately what one is doing, say as an investment banker or hedge fund manager).

The argument has been made very effectively that too much emphasis on the public may stifle legitimate private interests. This is indeed something to watch out for, but not a reason to reject all pursuit of public interests (and, really, no one wants to; even strong libertarians see some need for police; the question is where to draw the line). The argument has also been made that each individual should be understood as self-sufficient. This is clearly a mistake. And the argument has been made that our personal interests lie mainly in our private property. This argument needs to be counterbalanced by recognition of all the ways we benefit from effective and fair provision of public goods.

Notice that I snuck the words “effective” and “fair” into the last sentence. The two strongest arguments against focusing on public goods are: 1) that they won’t be provided as effectively as private goods, or that they will be distributed unfairly; 2) so if you want to make sure you get yours, you should rely on private means.

These arguments deserve to be taken seriously. They need to guide anyone seeking to provide public goods. Provision needs to be effective and fair, or citizens will lose faith in what they build in common and try to rely on what they can get for themselves.

But recall that there are some things it is really hard for everyone to acquire individually, or even just through their families’ resources. Take education. For most Americans it is provided at relatively low cost by public—government—institutions. Some people opt out and choose to pay privately. But they almost never pay the full cost of their education. It is a big burden for a family to send a child to a private university, for example, but think how much the burden would grow if that university were not tax exempt? And why is it tax exempt? Because it is understood to provide a public good. What is that public good? It is partly a wider distribution of the private good students gain—notably improved job market chances. And because there is public provision (even in so-called private universities) we insist that universities not be just for insider groups, that they be fair and admit strangers. But the public good of higher education is not just a provision of private benefits. There is a public benefit to having educated, well-trained professionals whose services we will share—nurses, teachers, and doctors, for example. There is a public benefit if education helps to increase prosperity and thereby also reduce crime and otherwise improve the quality of life in our communities. And there is a public benefit to the education of all citizens so that they can join in the collective process of maintaining our society and making it ever better.

It is crucial to see that public goods are not provided only by the government. Charities, religious organizations, nonprofit schools, philanthropic foundations, and social movements may all work to provide public goods. But as important as these are, the government is basic. It is through the government that we create the institutions that most affect all of us. These express something basic about who we are as citizens and what we value.

What does it have to do with the Obama stimulus plan?

And here is both the challenge for President Obama and the opportunity to give greater coherence and richer meaning to the stimulus package—and indeed government programs well beyond the initial stimulus package. We need government to work well and fairly at providing public goods for the American people. There is no solution to the problems we face—including the most basic economic problems—that does not depend on more effective government. Therefore, if we are to have a lasting recovery, and especially if we are to have an economy that provides better for all of its participants, then we need more effective and fairer government.

The stimulus package is, therefore, or at least should be not only an infusion of cash into markets but a beginning to the effort to renew government institutions. This is partly a matter of organizational reform. It is partly a matter of adequate budgets. It is also a matter of articulating the ideal of public service—of creating public goods, helping people to share in them, and making sure they are distributed fairly. It is important to attract young Americans to government and public service, and to inspire both them and those already working for the government with these ideals. Implementation of the stimulus package, and rhetorical descriptions of the stimulus package, should speak directly to these goals.

Moreover, we need the President, along with other leaders, to help make clear what public values guide the government—in the choice of programs and in their administration. This should not be seen as “mere rhetoric” or salesmanship. Public speech is important. Leaders contribute to democracy by articulating values, helping to clarify issues and focusing our attention on choices. Then we the people can better join in deciding what we stand for, what public good defines us.

[This essay was first posted on on February 2, 2009.—ed.]

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