About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

The meaning of "public"

It seems to me that a large number of Americans -- and certain this society at large in its current form -- doesn't have a clear meaning of what "public" (as in the public good) means. And the situation has gotten worse after many years of Republican control of both Congress and the White House.

Take an article by Faiza Akthat in the New York Times of October 23rd. It's about how schools on Long Island are hiring public relations firms to improve their "image" and convince the locals to vote in favor of school budgets that are increasingly being turned down. It's a sad state of affairs when "public" schools have to spend $25,000 to $100,000 a year on a publicist to convince the people they serve that they need sufficient resources to provide what those same people (rightly) expect of them.

But this doesn't go only for schools, of course. The US military has to resort to (often deceptive) ads campaigns to lure young people into service (see why I actually favor the reinstatement of the draft), and why "public" radios throughout the country are currently engaged in Fall fund raising campaigns. Moreover, the majority of so-called "state" (i.e., again, public) universities now receive less than 25% of their funds from their respective states, the rest coming from ever-higher tuitions (which defeat the very idea of public access to education) and private donations (mostly elicited through the lure of expensive and not exactly educational sports teams).

Add to this that there is no public health care (except for emergency systems such as MedicAid for the very poor and MediCare for low income retirees), that the public pension system (social security) is already grossly insufficient and may go belly up within a decade or two, and the emerging picture is one of a nation of individuals, not citizens.

The whole idea of a social contract is that the group (a nation, a society) is more than the sum of its individual components (pace the libertarians), because there are interactions among individuals, mechanisms put in place to try to lift everybody to a higher standard of living, education, and security. But Americans have bought into the idea that public is synonymous with evil, or at least grossly inefficient (forgetting the waste of corporate welfare and the scandals regularly plaguing the private sector). They have been convinced that "looking out for numero uno" is the best strategy for everybody, which somehow magically solves society's problems through the invisible hand of the marketplace (neglecting the important detail that this may work for economic issues, and even that to a limited extent, but that the latter are most certainly not the same as improved quality of life and social justice).

That's why our President doesn't want to extend MedicAid to the victims of Katrina, even temporarily, and relies instead on "faith-based" voluntary contributions to help with the relief. It is therefore surprising that we don't also have a faith-based missile defense system (as was suggested in an obviously sarcastic fashion by Richard Dawkins after the 9/11 attacks). Maybe Jesus was too much of a socialist to entrust him with the really important stuff.


  1. I don’t think this issue is as simple as drawing a line between progressive society and folks “looking out for numero uno.” I’ve spent time in both camps and I think both miss some pretty big points about real life. Chief among them being that they don’t realize that they are stuck with each other (at least until one group amasses so much power that it can dispose of the other, but lets hope that never happens.)

    Case in point: At one point we had the New Deal and the Great Society programs. Then, whether justified or not, the right was able to convince middle and working class people that these programs were a waste. Now one day, I’m sure the pendulum will swing back the other way, and then it will return to the right. This makes positive lasting change difficult and that’s why people get frustrated with government. I don’t think it’s just because people are looking out for themselves, it’s that they want to feel like if they chip in it will do some good.

    I’m the first to agree that we should fund our schools better, we need to take care of the sick, poor and elderly. But there are huge obstacles in the way, so it may be best to consider other options from time to time. There are other ways to serve society.


  2. I'm not sure this is such a "left" x "right" issue, although sure there seems to be a clear association "left likes public", "right likes private" type of thing, at least in the US.

    To me, it seems like it could be more of a societal self-image thing. You know, the whole pioneer, do it yourself, stand against the oppresive central power and go construct a "new world in the New World" thing (both of which ended up not being anything new after all).

    Again using my country as a counter-example. It's never been really left leaning, let alone communist or socialist or whatnot. The dictatorships we've had were all right-winged in nature, specially the last one (1964-1985 US sponsored fun for everybody). Even then, the feeling for what should be the duties of "the public" are much more varied and stronger than here, among everybody. (by the way, it does not mean the public services there are good - sometimes they are, mostly they aren't; but we see that as incompetence, not as a consequence of being public)

    Now, I'm no sociologist, historian or the like, so I may be saying BS. If that's the case, please let me know, somebody. :-)



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