At some level, the central thesis of this book is unobjectionable: the public can’t possibly be expected to pay attention to, and consider in a thoughtful way, every issue of public import. Society is complicated, and none of us can be an expert on everything that’s important. We can’t all know about the science behind global warming, the proper response to the ISIS threat, how we should handle income inequality (sidebar: can we talk about asset inequality instead? It’s likely to be a more durable problem), and so on. So, Lippmann says, let’s just give up on the unattainable ideal of mass democracy. It made sense in ancient Athens, and it may make sense in small towns; but in a large, complex, industrial democracy, we’re pining for an ideal that made sense to Jefferson but stopped making sense a few decades later.
Lippmann not only thinks that mass democracy is an unattainable ideal; he thinks it would be a bad idea even if it were possible for all of us to weigh in on every subject. Perhaps the Internet makes it possible, for instance, to give everyone a vote on every subject. Were Lippmann alive today, he’d tell us that we’d just make a hash of it, and that we should ditch such an idea. Again, we’re all, most of us, most of the time, going to be ignorant on most topics that come before us.
So we delegate to those who know better. We delegate telecommunications policy to the FCC and to the relevant Congressional committees; we delegate health-care policy to the Department of Health and Human Services; etc.
Considered properly, says Lippmann, there’s actually no such thing as ‘the public’ which is interested in this or that subject. There are many different publics. My public might be concerned with privacy on the Internet in the post-Edward Snowden era; your public might be concerned with gun rights. There is no such thing as ‘the public’.
That seems very wrong to me, inasmuch as all of these things affect all of us. When my child’s school gets shot up by an outcast eighth grader, I’m concerned very much with gun rights; when Google hands your search results over to the FBI without a warrant, I hope you’re concerned about your privacy. Defining a ‘public’ and its particular problems by the issues on which it can knowledgeably weigh in seems rather limited.
The ideal that Lippmann seems to be chasing is a technocratic elite: I delegate the solution to these problems to someone who (it’s stipulated) knows how to solve them better than I do. But mightn’t the technocrats be captured by those they’re regulating, or might they indeed be self-serving? Indeed they might. To solve this problem, Lippmann introduces a (grudging?) role for the public: we get to watch our technocratic betters debate one another, and we get to decide whether one or both of them is self-serving.
Even by the terms of Lippmann’s own argument, this seems wrong-headed. Suppose two parties are debating what should be done about asset inequality. One side proposes a small asset tax. The other side says that there’s not even a problem to solve; it says that asset inequality is what the Madonnas and Bill Gateses of the world deserve. According to Lippmann, we in the public are not supposed to be involved in deciding matters of policy, so let’s make this debate Lippmann-friendly and say that it’s between two politicians who are supposed to go and solve the problem of asset inequality — or not, depending upon which one we choose. Well, what now? Both sides seem quite earnest; I trust that both the Democrats (Piketty’s side, roughly) and the Republicans (Mankiw’s) believe sincerely that their views of the world are correct, and that the other side is making a major, harmful mistake. So neither is self-serving. And by stipulation, the public is too ignorant to decide on matters of policy. Yet we’re supposed to be smart enough to choose between two men arguing vehemently over fundamental values underlying those matters of policy. Does not compute. If we’re too ignorant to do the one, then we’re too ignorant to do the other.
Maybe Lippmann believes that we can educate the public to the point where it can at least choose its delegates. Nope; he nixes that idea quite early on. Education moves too slowly, he says. To properly educate Americans in matters of public import, it doesn’t suffice to just teach people broad principles; you’d need to teach them about ISIS and asset inequality and so forth.
So the only option that Lippmann seems to have left us with is to do a poor job delegating to our betters over matters that we fundamentally don’t understand.
The problem here isn’t just that Lippmann has left us with a poor system; it’s that his whole perspective on democracy is wrong. The point of democratic self-government isn’t to solve particular problems optimally; the point of democratic self-government is democratic self-government. Democracy isn’t the means; it’s the end. And consequently, I think Lippmann also has the wrong picture of the public that he’s facing. He’s picturing the members of a static public, who hold a set of mostly ignorant beliefs on a small set of issues — as opposed to a public which improves itself in order to make itself worthy of its own self-government. Without really saying so, I wonder whether Lippmann is like an economist, solving a static optimization problem: what’s the right way to process a certain fixed set of inputs to achieve a fixed goal?
Consider a narrower problem, namely free speech. There are terrible people out there who use speech to spew hatred. If I were to tell you that the solution to this problem is to limit speech to those who can use it correctly, you would rightly yell me out of the room. You’d do the same if I offered to limit voting to those who scored above a certain minimum level on an intelligence test. That’s because, to repeat, the point of democracy is not to yield better outcomes. Democracy, free speech, and the right to vote would all be desirable ways of structuring a society even if they led to terrible outcomes.
And do they lead to terrible outcomes? The only sensible way to answer that is “Compared to what?” (ObQuote: Churchill on how democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.) Is Lippmann’s technocratic élite, with a largely pliant public that delegates its power every few years and then passively watches for the next few years, any better? That’s an empirical question, but I think it’s fair to say that the historical record has been rather mixed. Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest comes to mind: the Kennedy administration was filled with people like Robert McNamara — a man who had organized the strategic bombing of Germany, had run Ford, and had graduated from Berkeley. These were brilliant men with all the right credentials. Yet the Kennedy men still got us into Vietnam. (Did Walter Lippmann graduate from Harvard? If you’ve read this book, the question answers itself.) On a gut level, I’m willing to call the historical battle between democratic self-government and technocratic management a draw, at best.
So in practice the argument for technocratic management is ambiguous at best. In principle it’s appalling.
The only reason I picked up The Phantom Public is because I’ve heard such wonderful things over the years about John Dewey’s The Public and Its Problems, which (according to the Wikipedia) is a direct response to Lippmann’s book. I’m expecting much better things from Dewey. I move on to him next.