Monday, June 16, 2008

John Dewey's The Public and Its Problems

John Dewey. The Public and Its Problems. Athens, Ohio: Swallow Press-Ohio University Press. Originally Published New York: H. Holt, 1927. 236 pages. Available at for $13.95, used and new from $5.00.

John Dewey wrote The Public and Its Problems in response to Walter Lippmann's Public Opinion, which I previously reviewed here. While Lippmann was among the first to notice cognitive limits to public deliberation especially with respect to the mass media's inability to represent issues meaningfully, and so implied a threat to the possibility of big government democracy, Dewey aims to present an argument as to why public opinion can be rationally derived. Dewey's arguments in favor of pragmatism are strong but his arguments in favor of the possibility of rational public deliberation do not resolve the barriers to deliberative mass democracy. As Dewey suggests, this weakness gives the reader pause as to whether we actually live in a democracy.

I am of two minds about The Public and Its Problems. As a pragmatist, Dewey provides an excellent basis for skepticism about political systems. His emphasis on the need for experimentation and the danger of excessive fascination with tradition suggest the need for flexibility in government. But this book contains the germs of early 21st century social democratic conservatism as well. As much as he criticizes Whigs and individualists for their commitment to liberal institutions, Dewey fetishizes state-based solutions. His Progressive ideology leads to his claim that the public can deliberate by hiring social scientists and allowing journalists free rein in painting of artistic portraits of the experts' observations for public consumption. This is not a pragmatic argument. It is nonsense. Nor is his treatment of Locke and the utilitarians pragmatic. It is precisely in the results of Lockean individualism that the individualist theory's advantages are evident. When (p. 105), Dewey emphasizes that all history involves association and that there is no such thing as a natural economy, he misses the point that such associations and transmission of culture and tools existed in primitive Middle Age and tribal economies as well as in the 19th and 20th centuries. What differentiated the latter was Lockean individualism. Hence, instead of looking for the reason that progress emanated from Lockean individualism, Dewey emphasizes institutional history. But the important difference between the modern and more primitive economies ensues not from adjustment to particular circumstances but rather from flexibility and incentives; from the ability of price to enable entrepreneurs to gauge demand; and from the ability of firms to allocate resources in response to price. As Dewey's Progressive ideas gained currency through the 20th century, the economy became less promising. Rather than revise Dewey's arguments, today's social democrats (formerly known as liberals) dug in their heels and insisted on the religious fetishization of government programs like Social Security and the Federal Reserve Bank.

On page 35 Dewey summarizes his argument that the state arises as a mechanism to deal with third parties' perceived effects (what economists call externalities) from private transactions:

"Associated action is a universal trait of the behavior of things. Such action has results. Some of the results of human collective action are perceived...Then there arise purposes, plans, measures and means to secure consequences which are liked and eliminate those which are found obnoxious. Thus perception generates a common interest; that is, those affected by the consequences are perforce concerned in conduct of all those who along with themselves share in bringing about the results...Those indirectly and seriously affected for good or for evil form a group distinctive enough to require recognition and a name. The name selected is the Public...Then and in so far, association adds to itself political organization, and something which may be government comes into being: the public is in a political state."

Thus, the public arises from the need to cope with externalities and the state, argues Dewey, is necessary to so cope. Unfortunately for Dewey, his argument is susceptible to the same criticism that he levies at other theories, namely, the exaggeration of human agency in the evolution of the state. This is true in three ways.

First, he does not make explicit how interests, perceptions and organization are actually implemented by his "Public". He assumes away the possibility of vested interests, asymmetries of information and power that are crucial to understanding the state and the inequities it causes. Dewey downplays the human agency necessary in the creation of law, and so supposes a naive public interest rationale for law (p. 57):

"the law as 'embodied reason' means a formulated generalization of means and procedures in behavior which are adapted to secure what is wanted."

Note the passive voice in this sentence. "What is wanted" by whom? For what end? Dewey describes the "primary problem of the public to achieve such recognition of itself as will give it weight in the selection of official representatives and in the definition of their responsibilities and rights" (p. 77) but this problem is but the tip of the iceberg. Which portions of the public are likely to be most successful in influencing public officials? Why do some economic interests become more powerful than others? These are questions that democracy has failed to resolve. Dewey suggests that these problems are necessary to solve in saying that public officials will always suffer conflicts, but he does not outline the structural asymmetries that skew democracy.

In chapter three, "The Democratic State", he criticizes individualist democratic theory for ignoring the effects of large scale organization and implicitly the need for labor organizations. He asks (p. 98): "Why, then, was a movement which involved so much submerging of personal action in the overflowing consequences of remote and inaccessible collective actions reflected in a philosophy of individualism?" His answer is that workers were traditionally oppressed, and the real beneficiaries of individualism were owners, who were the only ones to experience individualism first hand. But this is short sighted. While it is true immigration flooded the American labor market in the late 19th century, facilitating large scale organization and eliminating the possibility of entrepreneurship for many Americans, it is also true that the philosophy of individual contract led to a flexibility in labor markets that facilitated the evolution of the American work force. A considerable portion of the public continued to be self employed, with the jobs in large firms becoming more desirable because of administered labor markets and high wages. Thus, self-employment did not remain the first choice for many Americans because the gains from employment in a large scale firm were greater than from self-employment. Americans abandoned farms because they could not provide a standard of living that was adequate by modern standards.

Second, historically the state did not evolve in the context of a pre-existing society where economic transactions caused externalities. Rather, the state in Europe and around the world was an offshoot of traditional tribal authority. The French state, for instance, evolved through violent overthrow of the monarchy, which in turn was derived from the tribal authority of Frankish kings, who were themselves descended from Frankish tribal leaders. As well, the Roman state was tribally derived. The idea that the state evolved from externalities is a more far fetched fiction than the Lockean thought experiment that results in the state's being derived to protect life, liberty and property.

Third, the idea that there is less intentionality in forming a state to protect against externalities than there is in forming a state to protect against incursions on life, liberty and property is unfounded. Dewey's fundamental premise is a non sequitor. He emphasizes the importance of interpersonal associations in human activity and concludes that (p.27):

"all modes of associated behavior may have extensive and enduring consequences which involve others beyond those directly engaged in them...For the essence of the consequences which call a public into being is the fact that they expand beyond those directly engaged in producing them."

Dewey presents a public interest theory of government in which the state comes into being full-blown from the excrescences of the Standard Oil Corporation, and experts like Henry Carter Adams and Herbert Knox Smith bear the public good via a state whose only reason for existence is to help the public address the evils that Standard Oil has caused.

That is, Dewey argues that the state evolves as the public recognizes its own existence from the externalities that private transactions cause. The public remains "inchoate" (p. 31) because past institutions impede an awareness of the public's (i.e., which is effected by externalities) own existence. He adds (p. 31):

"the state is the organization of the public effected through officials for the protection of the interests shared by its members."

But the book makes good points as well. Despite Dewey's questionable theory of what constitutes a state, he emphasizes the need for pragmatic experimentation (p. 33):

"The formation of states must be an experimental process. The trial process may go on with diverse degrees of blindness and accident, and at the cost of unregulated procedures of cut and try, of fumbling and groping, without insight for what men are after or clear knowledge of a good state even when it is achieved. Or it may proceed more intelligently, because guided by knowledge of the conditions which must be fulfilled. But it is still experimental...The belief in political fixity, of the sanctity of some form of state consecrated by the efforts of our fathers and hallowed by tradition, is one of the stumbling-blocks in the way of orderly and directed change."

Not only does the state need to change, but as well "diversity of political forms rather than uniformity is the rule" (p. 45) so that a range of possible alternatives is possible.

It is here that social democratic liberalism has failed Dewey rather than the other way around. For the programs that social democracy has advocated in the name of pragmatism have become fixed. They have lasted as long as the laissez faire world of Jacksonian democracy lasted, since the 1910s to 1930s, and they have not worked much better than Jacksonian democracy did. But instead of rising to the pragmatic challenge and thinking about structural change, social democrats (formerly known as liberals) defend every attempt to reform or change their programs as aggressively as any conservative attempted to defend 19th century liberal society from Progressive reform. Social democrats have become today's reactionaries, and in doing so have betrayed Dewey's pragmatism.

Dewey wrote in a context where laissez faire capitalism had been only moderately regulated. Thus, Dewey anticipated a flexibility in the action of state functions that has not materialized. He concludes (p. 54) that:

"rules of law are in fact the institution of conditions under which persons make their arrangements with one another. They are structures which canalize action; they are active forces only as are banks which confine the flow of a stream and are commands only in the sense in which the banks command the current."

In this, Dewey's progressivism retains a strong taste of liberalism. He assumes that the state is one derived from classical liberal principles even as he attacks the basis of the classical liberal state, i.e., its limited nature and purpose. Dewey anticipates the the totalitarian state, but he explains it away (p. 73) by arguing that his theory is "neutral as to any general, sweeping implications as to how far state activity may extend." In a totalitarian state, law does not canalize human action but dams it up. In fact, Dewey's claim that state action primarily serves public interests was tragically contradicted in subsequent decades, and Dewey does not anticipate nor does his theory explain how the totalitarian state evolved from the Bismarckian welfare state, a state which likely served as a model for his own ideas.

In chapter III Dewey discusses the democratic state. All politicians have conflicting public and private interests and (pp. 77-82)

"the primary problem of the public (is to) achieve such recognition of itself as will give it weight in the selection of official representatives and in the definition of their responsibilities and rights...the same causes which have led men to utilize concentrated political power to serve private purposes will continue to act to induce men to employ concentrated economic power in behalf of non-public aims."

In discussing the utilitarian and individualist theory of rights Dewey quotes James Mill's (p. 93) "classic formulation of the nature of political democracy", namely, popular election, short terms of office and frequent elections and argues (p. 95) that classical liberal democracy over-rated individualism. Rather, "Today, the everyday relationships of men are largely with great impersonal concerns, with organizations not with individuals."

Yet, Dewey's emphasis on the importance of large scale organizations overstates the importance of scale and understates the importance of flexibility, a fallacy characteristic of the Progressives. They could not have known that flexibility would be more important than scale. It took the Japanese automobile industry to hammer this home in the 1950s (as well as the Austrian economists in the mid 20th century). Nor did Dewey grasp that institutionalization of special interests would lead to impediments to economic growth as the special interests pushed for regulation, licensure, taxation and other impediments to growth.

In chapter 5, "The Eclipse of the Public", Dewey notes that increasing scale and public apathy have been coupled with increasing big business power and homogenization of the American public (pp. 116-23):

"In spite of attained integration, or rather perhaps because of its nature, the Public seems to be lost; it is certainly bewildered...Those still more inclined to generalization assert that the whole apparatus of political activities is a kind of protective coloration to conceal the fact that big business rules the governmental roost...Is the public a myth?."

He further notes that (p. 126-31):

"The machine age has so enormously expanded, multiplied, identified and complicated the scope of indirect consequences, has formed such immense and consolidated unions in action, on an impersonal rather than a community basis, that the resultant public cannot identify and distinguish itself...There are too many publics and too much of public concern for our existing resources to cope with...the Great Society has invaded and partially disintegrated small communities of former times without generating a Great Community...The local face-to-face community has been invaded by forces so vast, so remote in initiation, so far-reaching in scope and so complexly indirect in operation that they are from the standpoint of the members of local social units, unknown."


"Aside from business corporations which have a direct interest in it and some engineers, how many citizens have the data or the ability to secure and estimate the facts involved...But the very size, heterogeneity and nobility of urban populations, the vast capital required, the technical characterization of the engineering problems involved soon tire the attention of the average voter."

And (p. 131-46)

"The increase in the number, variety and cheapness of amusements represents a powerful diversion of political concern. The members of an inchoate public have too many ways of enjoyment, as well as of work, to give much thought to organization into an effective public...Access to amusement has been rendered easy and cheap beyond anything known in the past."

In chapter 5, "Search for the Great Community", Dewey points out that the transition from family and dynastic government was the result of technology rather than ideology. Ideology has served primarily the role of "war cries" but not of hypotheses meant for experimentation. History has not borne him out. The classical liberal ideas that he deprecates have been associated with far better economic performance than socialist ones. Ideology rather than technology differentiated the American and Soviet economies. Thus, by his own pragmatism Dewey's diminution of the importance of ideology failed.

Dewey believes that the trend has been toward greater democracy (p. 146) but I do not think that history has borne out this belief. There has never been a solution to his question:

"The prime difficulty, as we have seen, is that of discovering the means by which a scattered, mobile and manifold public may so recognize itself as to define and express its interests."

Dewey suggests as a solution, enhanced participation in pluralistic groups. Democracy is the idea of community life (p. 148). Associations become communities when they are infused with morality supported by signs or symbols (p. 152). "The young have to be brought within the traditions, outlook and interests which characterize a community by means of education: by unremitting instruction and by learning in connection with the phenomena of overt association."

Meaning and communication can influence the technological and economic change that creates the "Great Society". To transform the Great Society into the Great Community social transmission of knowledge, tools and habits are needed (p. 158-9). Habit is fundamental to institutions. Mere freedom from constraint does not create intellectual freedom. The "agencies of publicity which exist in such abundance are utilized in...advertising, propaganda, invasion of private life" and therefore obstruct the "circulation of facts and ideas" (p 169). "We seem to approaching a state of government by hired promoters of opinion...Men have got used to an experimental method in physical and technical matters. They are still afraid of it in human concerns." Social knowledge is backward and people are excessively conservative and loyal to established institutions. "Only continuous inquiry, continuous in the sense of being connected as well as persistent, can provide the material of enduring opinion about public matters" (p. 178). Much of news is trivial and sensational (p. 180). Social science must be integrated with news. Instead, pecuniary interests manipulate the news. Presentation of news is "fundamentally important" (p. 188). "The freeing of the artist in literary presentation, in other words, is as much a precondition of the desirable creation of adequate opinion on public matters as is the freeing of social inquiry."

As Dewey notes in chapter 6, The Problem of Method, the reader is left with a considerable sense of denial of the possibility of these conditions occurring. Dewey goes on to argue that abstract theory is not important, but rather the consequences of theories are what should be considered (p. 193). "The problem of exercising 'social control' over individuals is in its reality that of regulating the doings and results of some individuals in order that a larger number of individuals may have a fuller and deeper experience...Even professedly empirical philosophies have assumed a certain finality and foreverness in their theories which may be expresse dby saying that they have been non-historical in character."

Subsequent generations of social democrats (formerly known as liberals) have betrayed this perspective. Dewey's Progressivism was founded on pragmatism. Today's social democrats resent any tinkering with the solutions that were put forward in Dewey's day. They are as conservative with respect to Social Security, the Federal Reserve Bank and the income tax as early twentieth century conservatives were, only in reverse. As Dewey points out (p. 202) "The person who holds the doctrine of individualism or collectivism has his program determined for him in advance." Today's liberals hold their collectivism tightly, and resent and resist any attempt to reform failure in their many programs, to include urban renewal and planning, education and monetary policy. The solution ought to be a new technology of public management, not a new ideology. As Dewey points out, ideological debates are sterile, and American politicians lack the knowledge or courage to experiment.

1 comment:

Norton said...

This was an interesting and informative review. But I have a question:

I was under the impression that this book was written in response to Walter Lippmann's "The Phantom Public." In that work, though mostly disparaging it, Lippmann argues that the "public" *does* serve an occasional role: to intervene during a moment of social disturbance or “a crisis of maladjustment.”

The question is: how does this differ from Dewey's idea of a public forming as a response to externalities?