I’m an egalitarian, participatory democrat (with a lower-case “d”). I believe that everyone should have as close as possible to an equal say in the political process. We can then decide fairly what scope we will give to markets. I also believe that participating in political institutions and community work can be intrinsically rewarding; therefore, as many people as possible should have the skills and opportunities to participate. Finally, I believe that everyone has knowledge, talents, and energies to contribute.
Nevertheless, political equality has two limitations that I think we should face squarely:
1. Business has a ?privileged position,” as Charles Lindblom noted long ago. Corporations shouldn’t be able to buy influence through campaign contributions or control of the mass media. However, they will be influential in any commercial society?and I believe that that’s what we have, by virtual consensus, in the United States. Without even seeking to affect government policies, they will allocate investments in communities and in nations that have favorable economic policies. Governments will compete to attract investment, and this competition will put downward pressure on taxes and regulation. Although there should be countervailing pressures, the influence of business is unavoidable in a commercial society.
If this is true, then we should be concerned about the degree of alignment between business interests and those of the rest of the public. Peter Peterson, Nixon’s Secretary of Commerce, recently lamented the demise of “corporate patriotism” and the lack of “corporate statesmen” today. He recalled the essential role that business had played in passing the Employment Act of 1946, (attacked at the time as “socialistic”), creating the president’s Council of Economic Advisors and the World Bank and IMF, and selling the Marshall Plan. Each of these reforms can be criticized for its substance, but each had broad support on the left.
We will be particularly suspicious of such reforms if we view the very idea of benign business influence as a myth and a sham. My sense is that business interests sometimes align sufficiently with public interests to allow compromises that are about the closest we can get to social justice in a commercial society. I also have the sense that such alignment is less likely today than in the period 1945-1970. Big businesses should be concerned about the federal government’s long-term fiscal solvency, and also about extremes of wealth and poverty, since their broader self-interest is involved. Yet they have little tangible positive influence today.
I suspect that business interests are most likely to align with broader interests if (a) firms have a lot of ?sunk costs? and cannot casually move their investments around; (b) the personal standing of their leaders is connected to their reputations for public service; (c) they are forced, by collective-bargaining and other arrangements, to consult regularly with workers and consumers, so that they are aware of other perspectives; and (d) they know that corporate ?statesmanship? is valued by religious congregations, community associations, colleges, and the press. Each of these factors is weaker than it used to be because of globalization, market worship, and declining unions.
2. Civic engagement is a minority taste. All types of people can and do participate in politics and civil society, whether they are young or old, rich or poor, white or people of color, women or men, citizens, residents, or even illegal aliens. However, participation is not for everyone. Only a minority of any community will attend meetings regularly, closely follow the news, lead and form associations, and organize and motivate others.
If this is true, then we should care whether these civic activists are a diverse and representative group, whether their interests align with those of average people, what techniques they use to gain influence, and how public-spirited they are. We should also care what resources they have at their disposal.
This is an abstract argument, but it has concrete, practical implications. For example, I have argued in favor of some kind of separate space on the Internet that imposes civic norms (decided on by the participants) and that serves civic activists. One way to do this would be to have a separate .civ (?dot-civ?) domain in which websites would be governed by norms that they enacted deliberatively.
There?s an argument against such an approach. The ?dot-civ? space would doubtless become a kind of walled-garden for people who are already civically active–uninteresting to those who go online for other reasons, including pop culture. Beth Noveck writes (pdf, p. 22) that my proposal was ?roundly criticized and rejected by the group assembled? to consider it. I remember the same conversation as considerably more balanced. In any case, I would argue?as a general matter?that it can be more effective to provide resources and networks for the ?civic tenth? in all our communities than to try to infuse small doses of civic values into mass culture. Again, we must be concerned about how diverse the active citizens are, but it?s a mistake to imagine that they will be very numerous.