Sep 07, 09
Recommended to Tyler by:
Libertarians; Fans of Social Sciences
Read in August, 2009
The denial of the public good in favor of private interests is a theme which gives this book as much relevance now as when it first came out. In this critique of modern society the author, J. R. Saul, raises the humanist banner of Socrates against the ideological standard of Plato.
Since about 1870, he tells us, Western individualism has given way to “corporatism,” the idea that power involves only group interests. The corporatist world view denies that individuals can be a source of social legitimacy in light of the manifest differences among them. Humans, so the theory goes, are incapable of objective thinking; their needs, even their very speech, reduce simply to self-interest. The displacement of the individual by group interests has given rise to an “unconscious” civilization in which people specialize in one subject and suffer almost childlike ignorance of other branches of knowledge.
Why would corporatism, or group interest, necessarily undermine the public good? The answer lies in the uniquely disinterested nature of the public good as opposed to the inherent self-interest of groups. A significant corollary of this definition is that the opposite of self-interest isn’t altruism at all, as is commonly supposed, but rather disinterest.
A society based in the power of group interest has disturbing deficiencies. Absent the disinterested authority of the public good, individuals are reduced to their immediate needs. Freedom becomes linked in people’s minds with a winner-take-all version of capitalism. The educational system actually impedes integrated thought as it changes to turn out a class of technicians and small-picture experts serving some private group or other, usually business interests.
A society with a weak sense of the public good has no memory from which to act. By the same token it becomes directionless, with a decreasing capacity to plan for the future. Knowledge, in such a scheme, cannot be converted to meaningful action by individuals. Free speech has little practical effect on policies. Public discourse lacks any appeal to human decency, grinding down instead into discussions among professionals about technicalities.
Economically, a false capitalism emerges in which efficiency substitutes for effectiveness, and decisiveness crowds out thoughtful action. Low interest rates lead to inflation, not growth: Economic activity gets dissipated in property speculation, mergers and acquisitions, and privatization of public goods. People, for their part, become functions, rewarded by their ability to integrate into groups in which loyalty trumps merit. Such a structure strands us with a sense of being entrapped in an imaginary dialectic yielding ineluctable conclusions. Neoliberalism and the end of history have arrived.
By contrasting the public good to private groups, the author exposes in libertarian thinking the fallacy of the excluded middle. When libertarians limit the scope of the public good, Saul argues, power simply moves into the hands of private organizations, not private individuals. That’s because any privatization scheme involves three players, not two. Individuals are little more than a third wheel to this power play between public and private. The dangerous end product of the elimination of the public good from decisions is power without responsibility.
How can we counteract that? The author suggests vaguely that we insert the individual wherever we can into ongoing debates and discussions. While individuals may not be able to change policies, they may be able to affect the dynamics of a society. Above all, individuals should develop personal virtues antithetical to a corporatist social structure, virtues such as common sense, creativity, personal ethics, memory and reason.
By looking carefully at the concept of the public good, Saul orients readers dramatically away from useless thinking about current social trends. The book is engaging, if at times rhetorical. Fifteen years in print, it is more relevant today than it was when it first appeared. The concise, innovative thinking the author brings to these pages makes the book a must-read for any reflective citizen anywhere in the developed world.