Chapter 1: Search for the Public

The key questions in this section are: what are the “public” and the “state” and how do they arise? Dewey starts the section by explaining some of the–essentially methodological–problems with how these questions have been addressed in the past. A few points here:

  1. The goal should be to answer what the state is not what it outght to be (to avoid “doctoring the facts”)
  2. We should not look for “state-forming forces”, or e.g. attribute the the formation of the state to a “political instinct” etc. – this merely kicks the causal can back a level without really explaining anything.

What is Dewey’s recommended approach instead? Dewey suggests that a study of these questions should start with acts that are performed by individuals (rather than speculating about the hypothetical causes for those acts). In particular, Dewey’s analysis starts with two points:

  1. Human acts (and associations) occur and have consequences (on other humans).
  2. Some of these consequences are perceived.

Building on this basic setup, Dewey further divides consequences into two kinds:

  1. Direct consequences: those consequences which affect the persons directly engaged in a transaction, and
  2. Indirect consequences: those consquences which affect others beyond those immediately concerned.

This distinction between direct and indirect consequences is important for Dewey because it captures the distinction between “public” and “private” action. When some action or association has indirect consequences that affect those outside of the primary individuals engaged in the action, the action takes on a “public” character. The public then consists of “all those who are affected by the indirect conseqeunces of transactions to such an extent that it is deemed necessary to have those consequences systematically cared for.” The state, likewise, is the infrastructure through which this regulation occurs. To summarize Dewey’s analysis:

  1. The public as a state springs forth from the fact that actions and associations may have indirect consequences on those not directly engaged in them.
  2. When these consequences are realized by those affected, there is a desire for the consequences to be taken care of / looked out for / managed.
  3. This supervision cannot be done by the primary groups originally engaged in the actions, because the public is exactly those who are affected beyond the primary group.
  4. Consequently, special agencies and measures must be formed to attend to the public consequences of these actions. Public “officials” are those who take on this role. The “state” is the set of agencies/measures/regulations that they institute.
  5. The “public” is organized in and through these public officers who act on behalf of the public’s interest.

Or to put it another way: a public and a state are formed out of a recognition of actions that have “public” consequences that extend beyond those engaged in the action, and the desire to regulate these consequences. When such a situation occurs, a “state” or regulatory institution – facilitated by “public officials” may emerge to organize the affected public, and undertake this supervision.

A few reactions to Dewey’s general analysis.

  • First, Dewey has a highly dynamic understanding of states and publics. There is not some monolithic “public” that pre-exists particular kinds of issues or actions. Instead, publics come into existence or are characterized by their shared relationship to particular issues / consequences, and the consequent shared desire to regulate these consequences. I wrote a bit about this here.

  • Second, Dewey emphasizes that there is a mediating process between actions and their perception public / private status: regardless of whether an action “actually” has indirect consequences, what matters politically is whether some action is perceive as having indirect consequences. Dewey highlights this point explicitly and notes that he does not want to “smuggle in” this point about perception. However, he does not say much further about the question of why certain actions come to be understood as having public consequences (while others do not). This is an important question because, in some sense, any action can be understood as having a public character. For example, many contemporary social issues – e.g. abortion, gay marriage – are concerned with mostly private actions which take on a “public” character (in Dewey’s frame) because of universalized moral attitudes. Likewise, some indirect consequences require complex scientific reasoning to perceive – e.g. global warming, masking during a pandemic etc. What determines the process by these kinds of scientific facts become known and accepted (or not) as articulating real public consequences? STS and other constructivist perspectives seem to have a lot to say here (e.g. I think of Jasanoff’s concept of “civic epistemologies”); in general, Dewey’s analysis seems highly amenable to STS extensions (even if he does not analyze/emphasize these pieces himself).

  • Third, there’s a clear way in which Dewey’s framework is highly consonant with how neoclassical economists think about the role of the state and regulation. I.e. Dewey’s indirect consequences are of course what economists call “externalities”; the state’s role is typically then to internalize these externalities so that individual actions better reflect the public interest. Of course, Dewey is interested in other points too, and e.g. the point above about how consequences come to be understood as consequences is not something many economists are concerned with. Additionally, Dewey has an interesting discussion that positions him against the thoroughgoing methodological individualism that is common in economics (pg 74/75; see also pg 111); in short, Dewey thinks of individuals as fundamentally existing in groups and in association with others (a point which also resonates with discussions in the plurality book). Still there’s a clear overlap with the neoclassical economics framework as well.

    • [Note from reading subsequent chapters (Ch 3): later on in the book, Dewey strongly distances himself from liberal economists’ perspectives on the role of the state vis a vis the market]

Chapter 2: Discovery of the State

In the first part of this chapter, Dewey seeks to provide evidence for his analysis that “publics are constituted by recognition of exetnesive and enduring indirect consequences of acts” (i.e. the analysis outlined in the previous chapter). What are some of the pieces of evidence that he offers?

  1. The heterogeneity in the forms of states, and their growth/change over time. Dewey rejects analyses that position different forms of states/publics hierarchically (e.g. state “growth”), or seek to position them as variants of some ideal or natural form. Instead, he thinks that this heterogeneity is explained by the fact that the nature (and understanding of) the consequences vary across places and times (accounting for the heterogeneity in states/publics).
  2. Dewey analyzes historical cases where particular actions/issues have transitioned from private to public concern (and vice versa), and argues that this was explained mainly by the extent to which the action was understood as having broad indirect conseqeunces. An interesting example here is religious beliefs, which Dewey argues have transitioned from an issue of “public” to “private” concern due to changing understandings of the extent to which religious attitudes were understood as affecting the community at large (as Dewey’s analysis of the public/private distinction would suggest).
    • Dewey discusses a range of other examples: public licensing (e.g. for Doctors), land sale regulation, marriage – all of which are understood as matters of public concern (for different reasons) and so become considerations of the state.
  3. The state and laws are almost always concerned with “modes of behavior which are old and hence well established, engrained”. Such things have indirect consequences that are clearly understood, and hence wind up the purview of the state per Dewey’s analysis. Dewey has a separate (and interesting) discussion of the state to novel creations and innovation (pg ~103).
  4. Children and other dependents are wards of the public. Education. Minimum wage. I don’t fully understand Dewey’s argument here. But I the idea is basically that this is another example that can be analyzed within his frame – these issues are understood as being of state concern because they understood as having broad and important indirect consequences.

Dewey also makes an important point in this section about the “scale” at which states/publics are relevant. In particular, states are not relevant at extremely small scales (e.g. the family), where they would be superfulous. Likewise, Dewey thinks that social groups that are too widely separated by geography / language / understanding cannot form a common interest or shared understanding of indirect consequences – and hence cannot form a common public or state. In between these two extremes of scale is the purview of “states”. This is a really interesting topic to think more about, especially in the context of contemporary times where we seem to be increasingly awash in “global”-scale political issues like climate change, covid etc. I don’t think this necessarily disagrees with Dewey’s analysis; instead, it testifies to the fact that we’ve become increasingly intertwined at larger scales (e.g. due to digital technologies, globalization etc.) and also increasingly aware of various global consequences of our actions. Per Dewey’s analysis, even as we have become aware of these global consequences, we see plenty of challenges around allowing publics/states to form at global scales, e.g. due to the interference of older modes of organization (i.e. nation states), as well as practical and logistical challenges of organizing at scale. In general, this idea connects to the work of the plurality space, which is broadly interested in facilitating cooperation at scale.

Later on in the chapter (~pg 99), Dewey discusses how he understands the nature of state “regulation”. He defines his perspective against the “Leviathan” type story which he disagrees with, which he thinks views the regulations and laws of the state as “commands” of some impersonal or general “will”. On this framing, state action is understood as a set of injunctions or prohibitions on the wills of subjects. This frame leads naturally to the question of why the state’s will should be justified; why should it have more authority than others? Why should the public submit? The conclusion is that the answer must be due to force. Dewey, by contrast, views state regulations as something like contracts, apparently entered into between the public concerned with some set of indirect consequences and the primary actors involved with producing those consequences. The rules set up some set of conditions and payoffs – e.g. if you conform to these rules, X will happen; if not: Y will happen etc. Dewey alludes to the idea that this is necessary because individuals are limited in their ability to fully appreciate the consequences of their actions, and so part of the purpose of laws is effectively to internalize the indirect conseqeuences. Per above, this kind of perspective again has clear resonances with how many economists think about regulation. In general, Dewey seemingly makes no claims about how such contracts form in exactly the ways that they do. It seems clear that power clearly does factor in here in any practical case, even if not in the impersonal way that other thinkers might have suggested.

I continue to see strong connections with constructivist STS perspectives. For example, on pg 107 Dewey discusses how there is “no sharp and clear line which draws itself” between the public and private, though there are some characteristics of actions that tend to be more on one side or the other (see above). There is often room for dispute. Like many STS thinkers (e.g. Jasanoff), Dewey thinks that it is an intereseting and answerable question to investigate why different lines (between what does or does not have “indirect consequences”, and hence what is public vs. private) get drawn in different places and times. This reminds me of Jasanoff’s approach in her cross-national comparative analysis on line-drawing around stem cell research.

Chapter 3: The Democratic State

This chapter starts by definining what it means for a government or state to be “representative”. In Dewey’s framework, there is a sense in which all governments are representative in that they “purport to stand for the interests which a public has in the behavior of individuals and groups” (116). However, this does not mean that all states are representative in the sense that we usually mean it. Indeed, Dewey emphasizes that every “officer of the public” – whether a voter or a state official – has a dual capacity and competing goals – on the one hand as a private citizen, and on the other hand as a public official. And so, since the state is always ultimately enacted by individuals (who also have this private capacity), there is always a risk that individuals will act in their public capacity in a way that actually benefits them privately. According to Dewey, we call a government “representative” when the public adopts special measures to minimize the conflict between public and private aims of state representatives (including voters), and to ensure that the public interst overrides the public one for state officers when there is conflict. The question, then, is: how do you design a political system that can be successul in ensuring that public agents will act with the public interest in mind?

This is where “democracy” comes to the fore of the discussion. Historically, political power has been unrelated to the ability to rule, or sensitivity to the interests of various publics. Instead it’s been based on irrelevant or “accidental” factors like age, success in war, familial inheritance and so on. And so there was not much ensurance that political leaders would act in a manner that benefited the public. Democracy is, in the first place, an effort to counteract these forces in the choice of public officials. In the second place, it is an effort to counteract the tendency to employ political power to serve private instead of public ends.

Dewey goes on to undertake some historical analysis of the emergence of democracy, and how it has been justified. Interestingly (consistent with his earlier discussion), Dewey is skeptical of thoroughgoing “individualism” and the theory of individual liberty that was historically connected with the democratic movement and liberalism. In this liberal frame, democracy is justfiied (against the alternative of e.g. monarchic forms) by a belief in the presence of individual natural rights (see e.g. Locke, the US bill of rights, the French Revolution); on this view, it follows that the end of government should be to protect these natural rights. While there is a historical reason for this rhetorical focus on the individual (essentially because other sorts of groups like the church were also tied up with the non-democratic forms that revolutionaries wanted to reject), Dewey thinks that there is no necessary reason for all this focus on the individual (and seems to think it is both consequentially problematic and wrong as a matter of fact); it was just a convenient focal point given the historical context. The individualistic wrongly strips individuals of all association and sets up a tension between the bear individual and the state. For Dewey, per above, individuals are fundamentally defined in their associations with others (this also interesting read against the plurality book and its understanding of identity; see also).Later on in the chapter, Dewey argues that this intellectual push towards “individualism” (while historically logical for other reasons) was uniquely inept in that it came at a time when individuals, in reality, were becoming less “individual” and more entangled than ever historically e.g. due to technological change (steam, electricity) and the attendant social/economic transformation. This is exposited further in Chapter 4.

Interestingly, here Dewey also discusses how economic logics of Adam Smith, markets, the “laws” of supply and demand were integrated with individualistic / liberal perspectives in the development of democracy, and undertakes a summary of the basics of the liberal economic perspective. On this view, most activity is to be left to the invisible hand of the market, which (per Smith) leads individuals to act in line with the public benefit even while pursuing their private aims. The role of government is essentially to get out of the way, aside from enforcing private property rights, and contracts that facilitate some forms of exchange. This frame leads back up to Dewey’s original question of how to organize political forms to align the interests of the governors with the governed. The answer from this paradigm is given by Mill, who formulates key ideas about political democracy – popular elections, short terms, frequent elections – in manner that Dewey seems to be on board with. However, Dewey distances himself from the broader classical liberal economic frame on political economy, and particularly its understanding of the role of government / the state primarily as protector of natural “individual” rights. More broadly, Dewey also contests the paradigm’s naturalization of economic “laws” and complementary positioning of state intervention / regulation as “artificial”. He makes a mix of interrlated arguments here; one standard (and compelling) arugment highlights the fact that markets & economic arrangements, too, are politically constructed and so are no more “natural” than other forms of intervention. Dewey similarly contests the naturalization of individual “needs” and highlights how many of our individual desires are conditioned by social forces.

Chapter 4: The Eclipse of the Public

Thesis of this section is on pg 157 of my copy; for now I will just quote it in full:

Previous discussion has brought to light some conditions out of which the public is generated. It has also set forth some of the causes through which a “new age of human relationships” has been brought into being. These two arguments form the premises which, when they are related to each other, will provide our answer to the questions just raised. Indirect, extensive, enduring and serious consequences of conjoint and interacting behavior call a public into existence having a common interest in controlling these consequences. But the machine age has so enormously expanded, multiplied, intensified and complicated the scope of the indirect consequences, have formed such immense and consolidated unions in action, on an impersonal rather than a community basis, that the resultant public cannot identify and distinguish itself. And this discovery is obviously an antecedent condition of any effective organization on its part. Such is our thesis regarding the eclipse which the public idea and interest have undergone. There are too many publics and too much of public concern for our existing resources to cope with. The problem of a democratically organized public is primarily and essentially an intellectual problem, in a degree to which the political affairs of prior ages offer no parallel.