The mind of the public

I’m about half way through reading John Dewey’s

, trying to fill a gap in my knowledge.

The first half argues that the idea of ‘the public’ is meaningful, and that notions of ‘the state’ as a causally-powerful separate entity do not make sense. It’s intriguing because it’s a little bit like reading the work of an institutionalist approach (

) to collective action problems, combined with some of the recent work on the psychology of choice and the emergence of social phenomena. In other words, there are flashes of prescience about these future strands, written in the rather long-winded language of the early 20th century.

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Takes this for example:

“The tendency to put what is old and established in uniform lines under the regulation of the state has psychological support. Habits economize intellectual as well as muscular energy. … The efficiency of liberation from attention to whatever is regularly recurrent is reinforced by an emotional tendency to get rid of bother. Hence there is a general disposition to turn over the activities which have become highly standardized and uniform to representatives of the public. It is possible that the time will come when not only railways will have become routine in their operation and management, but also existing modes of machine production, so that businessmen, instead of opposing public ownership will clamor for it in order that they may devote their energies to affairs which involve more novelty, variation and opportunities for risk and gain.”

I think this is wrong in arguing that routinisation is the basis for interest in collective ownership and management; but it’s the foreshadowing of

‘s argument that’s interesting.

Actually, so far in the book much of Dewey’s argument about the validity of the concept of ‘the public’ and justification for government action has been in terms of externalities and public goods, but without using that language. I’m not exactly sure when economists began to use those terms, but presumably they originated with Pigou? His book on welfare economics pre-dates

, but it would no doubt have taken a while for them to spread beyond the economics profession and creep towards common usage.

 

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