With the tidal wave of privatization over the last 30 years, a great many tasks, programs, and processes that were once taken for granted as public functions have been given over to private individuals and corporations to perform -- with all the corrupting conflicts of interest that entails, and all the funneling of public moneys to privates purposes. If there is one function that is considered to be inherently public across the political spectrum, it is the military -- even conservatives argue that it is the first job of government to protect public safety. I would add security generally and intelligence to this, not just the uniformed military services. Yet in the last decade we have seen a massive privatization of the military-industrial-intelligence complex. Robert Greenwald discusses here how some of the richest of the rich are not bankers but war profiteers, who have put themselves into the 1% (actually, as Greenwald shows, the 0.01%) essentially by exploiting the war system to diverting the public funds of the 99% to themselves. This is a horrifying threat to democracy -- think of the social power that is being concentrated: the economic power of near-limitless wealth is being combined with the secrecy and knowledge powers of modern intelligence, and with the power of naked military might. Such a combination and concentration of power is obviously a grave threat to democratic self-government by the people who do not have such powers.
A healthy democracy implies that a public sphere exists that is common to all -- the word “republic,” in Latin res publica, means “public thing” or public business.” There are many things in life that are the common concern of everyone, from the state of the environment, to whether we go to war, to the general health of the economy and distribution of the fruits of our common labors. These things impact everyone, and therefore are rightly and legitimately matters that the public can make law about. To be sure, we protect certain individual rights such as freedom of speech and association, because we value individuality and personal freedom. But even the protection of these rights is done by the public together as a whole, they are exercised in public spaces, and there are many areas of life outside of basic rights where the common interest and public policy trump the rights-claims of individuals. Private property is one example: as Jefferson observed, the rules of property are social creations, not natural phenomena, and can be altered by society when necessary to increase the public well-being or to eliminate potential or actual harm to the public.
To exercise any political virtue pre-supposes the existence of a public sphere, separate and superior to private interests, that serves public needs. In the future on this blog I will discuss at length what I believe economic democracy is and what should be done to create a truly democratic and prosperous political economy. Some will instinctively react that private markets are always more efficient and less wasteful than government, such have our political assumptions become so infused with conservative talking points. This claim is not true, as a simple comparison of the bloated defense and failed finance sectors to efficient public programs like Social Security and Medicare shows. There are plenty of efficient public programs and inefficient private companies, it’s mainly a matter of whether accountability is maximized inside large institutions or not. But efficiency is not even the main point; there are some functions that are inherently public, because they impact all of us who make up the public, and so we by right and by law must determine how those social functions are carried out. There is much that has been privatized that should be public, and we are going to have to get over our fear of nationalization, for we will eventually have to go through several rounds of de-privatization of key industries. There are many industries that impact all of us, and if I had my way I would make public industries or utilities out of banking, finance and energy, and have a much stronger public element to the communications, media, and transportation sectors. Those are all debatable, and some will disagree, and there is much more to say about the details. But we all seem to agree that the military and national security are critical public functions and they should be treated as such. Enough already with the contractors and with private defense manufacturers; these things should be made fully public, lest they continue to concentrate too much unaccountable power and wealth in the hands of a few.