I agree with Mike Konczal’s critique of conservatives’ kneejerk rejection of public solutions to public problems:
Conservatives don’t really get that some things are “public,” and it’s hurting their ability to handle the challenges of the early 21st century.
One can spend an entire lifetime debating the distinction between “public” and “private,” but for this post let’s use an approach from John Dewey. In “The Public and Its Problems” (1927), Dewey argued that the public is involved wherever an action between two people has consequences “that extend beyond the two directly concerned.” Given “that they affect the welfare of many others, the act acquires a public capacity.” And as such needs a public response. And conservatives reject this.
However, it does leave me filled with unanswered questions. First, let’s make a distinction—between direct public action, for example, when the Army Corps of Engineers builds a levee on the Mississippi and indirect public action as when the Congress passes a law to make home mortgage interest deductible from one’s income for the purposes of calculating the personal income tax one owes.
Here are some of my questions:
- Does every public problem have a solution in direct public action?
- Does every public problem have a solution in indirect public action?
- Are some public problems more effectively solved by purely private sector solutions?
- Are there some public problems requiring direct public action for which the federal government is not the most effective instrumentality?
- Are there some public problems requiring indirect public action for which the federal government is not the effective instrumentality?
- Are there some public problems requiring direct public action for which state governments are not the most effective instrumentality?
- Are there some public problems requiring indirect public action for which state governments are not the most effective instrumentality?
- Are there some public problems which are simply not amenable to solution whether public or private?
- Do the adverse secondary effects of direct public action sometimes outweigh the beneficial primary effects?
- Do the adverse secondary effects of indirect public action sometimes outweigh the beneficial primary effects?
and that’s just scratching the surface.
I think that the number of people who oppose all public action is very small, indeed. At the federal level nearly everyone believes that defense is legitimate and necessary public action as are establishing a uniform system of weights and measures, some level of public infrastructure, and establishing and maintaining a secure and stable monetary system, just to name a few. Coincidentally, those are all things specifically mentioned in the U. S. Constitution.
There are other measures which I believe that nearly all Americans believe are best done by public action at the state or local level. These include building standards, public health systems, zoning, managing a public education system, and, indeed, most public infrastructure.
If there’s anybody who believes in a purely private system of education, I have yet to hear of it and I believe that one of the things we have learned over our experience as a country is that, if every child is to have a basic education, it must be provided by the public sector. The unaided private sector simply won’t do it. That’s also true of public health systems, infrastructure, putting out fires, and law enforcement.
There are some things that we aren’t doing now that I think are clear action items for public action. So, for example, I think we can say with confidence that, if we are to have a robust and resilient national system of energy distribution, it must be provided by the government. The private sector simply won’t do it.
I also think that long-term unemployment is a problem for which there is no clear effective purely private solution.
As I’ve written before, I believe in the principle of subsidiarity, i.e. that public problems should be addressed by the lowest level of government practicable. I think it’s okay for Chicago to have different building standards than Los Angeles and that Chicago’s city government is in a better position to make determinations about those standards than Springfield or Washington, DC.
Are the real questions we’re debating whether there’s room for any public action at all? Or is it what the best, cheapest, and most effective venues for solving problems are?