John Dewey says that the term ‘public’ isn’t vacuous: if I buy a used car from you, that’s a transaction between two private actors that doesn’t radiate (arguably) beyond the two of them. What counts as ‘public’ are exactly those transactions whose effects spill beyond those involved in them. The state is called into being to regulate actions which are public in this sense. This defines government not by its origins or its particular means of accomplishing what it accomplishes, but rather by a set of effects that it wants to regulate. This is Dewey’s philosophy throughout The Public and Its Problems: look always at effects as a way of clarifying things. (Does this make him a pragmatist? A consequentialist? Anyway, consistent with what Dewey himself might say, the label doesn’t matter so long as we all know what we’re talking about in any specific case.)
But then it gets confusing, first because, obviously, you can make the case that most any transaction has consequences that spill beyond the immediate actors. (Let’s do like the economists do and call these ‘externalities.’ There are both negative and positive externalities, depending upon whether we like the consequences.) I buy a pack of cigarettes from the corner store, then go and smoke one of them on the street corner; should the cashier at the bodega be required to pay for his role in my covering passersby with secondhand smoke?
The second reason why this definition of ‘public’ gets confusing is specific to Dewey’s book. When my dentist puts surgical implements in my mouth, that’s purely private; but society has an interest, Dewey says, in regulating dental licensure generally. So far as I can tell, he doesn’t really pursue this distinction between the act and the general environment in which the act takes place, but it seems rather important. It’s also interesting that he doesn’t pursue the direction that some libertarian economists would take, namely that (in the age of Yelp especially, let’s say) the fear of a bad reputation is a sufficient replacement for licensure. But in any case: if one private transaction isn’t public, then what makes many such transactions, considered in the aggregate, public? You and I can both think of obvious explanations here, so there’s no real need to pursue them. And perhaps it’s for the best: maybe Dewey didn’t exist in a time of fatuous libertarians, so he didn’t feel obliged to justify himself to them. It was a better time for everyone.
We live, and Dewey lived, in an era when industrialization had upended much of what we thought about the public and about community. The doctrine of individualism, which did much to break the bonds of society, was born at the same time as steam-power, and in Dewey’s telling this is not coincidental: inventors had unlocked great potential in man through the use of labor-saving machinery, yet mercantilism and royalty conspired to prevent its full use. Individualism was meant to break free from this, and save man from stifling collectives. But ironically, says Dewey, the doctrine arose just as man’s individual identity was being submerged within giant institutions run by industrialists. Individualism, in this telling, is the thin transition layer between eras of repression.
After industrialization, people moved off to live in cities, thereby destroying the close personal connections that they might have had with their neighbors. In that earlier era we might have had a ‘community'; now we don’t. The small-scale community has been replaced with a large-scale mob. A large number of people, each watching the same television program, does not a community make. People like Walter Lippmann would then say, well, to hell with the community; you can’t organize a functioning government out of an ignorant mass. Lippmann would say, let’s have rule by the technocratic élite. Dewey pushes in the opposite direction: reconstruct community out of that mob. And the way to do that, in the modern era, is by means of the same mass communication that so lamely connects us.
The community of physical scientists, which has flourished during the era of industrialization, is one model for the great community that Dewey envisions. He says that we’ve mastered the physical sciences but done little with the human sciences, and that mastering the human sciences is a necessary step on the road to building the great community. I hear in here an optimistic story of how, say, business cycles can be controlled. I can’t draw you a complete picture of how we got from there to here, but I would hazard a guess that economists as a group are less optimistic than Dewey was, nearly a century ago, about the prospects of economic control.
When it really mattered — during the first and second world wars — we certainly did manage to control the economy plenty well. That’s a story about which I’ve read little. I know its broad outlines, and some of its details; in Bowling Alone, I think it was, the author notes that eighty percent of American males were involved in the war effort during World War II. It might even be more specific or greater than that: it might be 80% of all Americans (including, say, women working in explosives factories at home), or it might be that 80% of all males served in uniform. But in any case, a significant fraction of Americans’ labor was redirected into total war. This must have meant that a significant fraction of labor which had been involved in producing food for domestic consumption was now solely producing it for soldiers on the front lines. Likewise at every scale of economic production, from shoes up to civilian aircraft. Since the economy had now converted most of its slack resources (human and otherwise) into military production, there was a great risk of inflation. The government responded to this by limiting wages, imposing rationing, etc. So when we need to harness collective energies, we can. The rest of the time, we choose not to. (This would be of a piece with Piketty‘s depressing observation that inequality has only really decreased when war has taken the asset-owning class’s assets and blown them up. It’s also of a piece with all of Bowling Alone.)
The challenge, then, is to construct a community without the impetus of war. When people feel peace within their communities and their society, they will feel peace in their own minds. The life of an individual human is inseparable from the life of his or her community; sickness in the one will lead to sickness in the other. I take from Dewey a very optimistic view of how to return peace to humans, and to human civilization.