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[This is kluge.]Where some ideas are stranger than others...

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Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...

WHO IS THE PUBLIC IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST?

In a media landscape awash in buzz words and sound bites, there exist a few special terms that slip easily between these two categories, seeing heavy use as a result. This collection of special terms includes 'the public interest' in Canada, better known as 'the national interest' in the United States. 'The public interest' tends to be used as a sort of shorthand for the balancing of individual or community losses against societal gains. Specifically, individual or community losses can be acceptable so long as society at large gains. The losses don't appear to measured or chosen by the potentially losing parties so much as by selected individuals with little or no connection to them. For example, the decision on whether or not to go to war has never, so far as I can find, been decided by those expected to actually fight and die. To take an example at a smaller scale, when a city council considers whether to invest in more roadbuilding or transit system improvements, citizens may lobby the council, but unless the question happens to be tied directly to an election result, the decision is not theirs. Over the past ten to twenty years at least, the selected decision makers at all levels have made a range of decisions detrimental to society at large as well as smaller parts of society. If we hold the usual expectations taught to us in school, we likely expect the whole process of serving the public interest to get easier and happen successfully more often over time, so the last ten to twenty years may look like aberrations. Something has apparently gone amiss, but the key question is what. The place to find the 'what' is in the origins of the public interest as a concept, who 'the public' is, and how and by whom the mode of public interest decision making used in Canada and the United States was chosen.

If you are a philosopher or an ethicist, you already have some experience with the concept of the public interest and some of its history. Fundamentally, successfully defining and then serving the public interest is a powerful means of acquiring legitimacy for a given system of government. The western tradition of thought about the public interest is often traced back to Plato and his dialogues dealing with questions of what 'the good' is, how to achieve it, and what the ideal sort of government is. But such discussions evidently go much further back in the written record to the first kings and their efforts at legitimating their power, and beyond the written record in what is often sloppily called 'the old world.' My point here is simply that as soon as you get into a small group of people, those people have to agree among themselves how to decide what and when the good of the group as a whole supersedes the immediate desires of individuals or subsets of that group. 'The good' can be tricky to agree on, so there also had to be a method of dealing with irreconcilable differences. In much of the Americas before Europeans arrived or any empire building was seriously attempted in South or Central America, the usual method was splitting up, with each faction going its own way. This led to a remarkable number of robust democracies, some representative, some direct. In much of Asia1, the general method of dealing with differences was warfare, especially once people began to believe that there wasn't enough space for everyone to live in.

By the time Europeans relearned about four continents (North America, South America, Australia, Antarctica) in the late 1400s, the warfare means of dealing with dissent was entrenched. It took an alarming number of overlapping forms, from religious persecution to civil war. The 'discovery' of the Americas must have seemed like a solution to the daily terror Europeans were living with. The persecuted had a place to flee to, the European states saw a way of bringing down their 'excess population.' This second view had considerable resources and military power behind it, so state-driven population movements became a significant force. However, the majority of the people being moved were not in favour of this at all. At first their opposition was officially gotten around simply by not consulting them; but there were an awful lot of them, and the times were difficult enough that not a small number were willing to pick up makeshift weapons. On the other hand, having numerous people migrating, willingly or not, proved to be an even bigger headache. So European governments began to develop an all manner of incentives to head overseas, not the least of which was the concept of the public interest. It was for the good of society at large that people who could not be supported in their homelands should leave and make a new life elsewhere.

By now 'the public interest' or 'greater good of society' had become very popular. It justified every means of proselytizing and conversion of non-christians, from psychological to literal warfare. It justified forcibly driving Indigenous people out of their homes and then their homelands, because supposedly they were leaving their lands to waste, and it was better for everyone concerned if those lands were put properly to use. It was better for everyone concerned to destroy non-cash and non-agricultural economies wherever they were found, because cash economies were supposed to be more efficient for everything, and being a 'yeoman-farmer' made good citizens. That an extraordinary effort was being put into destroying societies and ways of life that Europeans didn't understand in the Americas, the rest of Asia, Australia and New Zealand was all for the best, because the whole world would benefit from the changes.

A natural response to this role call is to say, 'That was then, before democracies. That isn't the way things work anymore. Democracy prevents such horrors.' It is certainly true that democratic forms of government can provide an important ethical check on justifications based on the idea of the public interest by insisting on the importance of balance between losses and gains for affected people and land. Indeed, the reintroduction of democratic systems of government to Asia from the Americas is an important historical event because it encouraged the recreation of that ethical check.

But a key question when considering the question of the public interest, the one we ignore at our peril, is that of who the public is. Chomsky and Herman give a fascinating description of what they understand 'the nation' or 'public' to be based on their analysis of messages in the United States media. It's rather unfortunate that it is relegated to a footnote:

We use the term 'special interests' in its commonsense meaning, not in the Orwellian usage of the Reagan era, where it designates workers, farmers, women, youth, blacks, the aged and infirm, the unemployed — in short, the population at large. Only one group did not merit this appellation: corporations, and their owners and managers. They are not 'special interests,' they represent the 'national interest.' This terminology represents the reality of domination and the operational usage of 'national interest' for the two major political parties.2

Based on the above, in the United States, 'the public' or 'nation' consists of 'corporations, their owners and managers.' This definition also apparently applies in Canada, where protesters are regularly declared by the mainstream media and the majority of individuals in decision-making capacities to be 'dissatisfied minorities,' 'lobby groups,' and that now vastly pejorative term, 'special interest groups.' Correlated to this definition is a persistent claim that such 'squeaky wheels' are really after more than their fair share of the benefits, specifically, they are looking to be paid off. This claim invokes the spectre of protection rackets and bullies. Meanwhile, if you actually go to see who is protesting yourself, and I do mean go and see, go to a protest or a meeting of people working together for a goal at odds with what 'the public' wants. Rather than a pack of ruffians or sly-eyed schemers looking to leverage some cash out of their betters, you will find the very people Herman and Chomsky list: workers, farmers, women, people of colour, youth, the homeless, the sick, and the old.

I wouldn't argue that the majority of those who use this definition of the non-public and the public are doing so consciously. There is a remarkable range of mechanisms built into decision-making bodies in Canada devised specifically to prevent alternative information reaching the decision-makers, ostensibly for fear of causing them to be 'biassed.' Conversely, the number of decision-makers actually from those groups, or who still have real knowledge of those groups after coming from them, is small due to the means by which they are selected. Selection is based on number of years of expensive post-secondary schooling and service in a variety of corporate entities. If you have never been homeless or faced it as a real possibility, it is understandable why you may have difficulties understanding the opposition of homeless people to particular policies. Understandable, but not excusable, not in this day and age when we have many resources to help us overcome our social blind spots.

In the main, how decision-making is carried out and how decision-makers are chosen has been determined by the population at large only in the most general terms, in the widest brushstrokes. This is primarily an unpleasant lingering hangover from the days when white, property-holding men openly insisted on their sole right to rule based on their ability to hold property, their whiteness, and their masculinity. This probably constitutes the oldest and most influential circular argument of all time, persisting even as definitions of whiteness, property, and masculinity have changed. The de facto real 'person' continues to be a property-holding white man, and the desires, beliefs, and ambitions of this person are still used to define 'the norm.' Anything that might make things outside the norm more important than that norm in your consciousness constitute a bias, it can never be a fact.

The individuals closest to this norm are the owners and managers of corporations, along with a selection of higher level officials in government and co-opted individuals in larger organizations founded to defend the interests of those who are not owners or managers of corporations. From the perspective of those individuals, capitalism, the 'free market' (whether such a thing exists is a whole other topic), and the avid exploitation of every and all of any and all kinds of resources in a cash economy works. Everyone makes a profit, 'resources' aren't left trapped or to waste. Everyone is drawn into a more efficient, more effective cash-based economy. People who resist this system are forced to go along even if they see it as destroying their own livelihoods and the land they depend on and expect to pass on to the future, because this serves the greater public interest. It all makes perfect sense, and even appears to work perfectly, as long as you are part of that very elite group.

Logically, democratic government would prevent any group, be it an elite or not, from being effectively the sole, isolated arbiter of what it means to serve the public interest. By many accounts, Canada and the United States are democracies. If a marker of government legitimacy, and of democracy, is the successful definition and service of the public interest, what does the apparent working definition of 'the public' and 'the public interest' tell us about the state of democracy in Canada and the United States?

  1. My understanding of the definition of a continent is that it is a body of land defined by a continuous mainland. Accordingly, Europe is no continent but a part of the continent of Asia. Therefore, the continents are: Antarctica, North America, South America, Australia, Africa, and Greenland. If you're thinking that makes Asia an absolutely huge continent, on one hand that's quite true; on the other hand, if we take that impression from the most familiar type of world map, we'd be a bit deceived. The most common world maps are drawn based on the Mercator projection, which distorts sizes and shapes while maintaining the same bearings.
  2. Page 331 footnote 1 in "Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media" by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky; Pantheon Books, New York, 2002.
Copyright © C. Osborne 2017
Last Modified: Friday, August 30, 2013 00:27:24 MDT