The Kind of “Public Service” We Can Do Without

In a column for the Huffington Post on Monday, June 13, 2011, Columbia University’s Steven Cohen asserts that “every American should be frightened by the profound and intensifying attack on government and public service.” Cohen submits a vision of the United States very close to an antithesis of the one that actually exists, his alternative universe being a place where the state has been trivialized in favor of “the free market.”

Cohen’s utopia would apparently be a place where the government and giant corporations work hand in glove, their alliance driven by a vaguely parental “passion for public service.” His major assumptions, then, are twofold: That public services cannot be provided but through hierarchy and violent monopolization, and that violent monopolists have every interest in serving the public. Well, on both counts, Cohen couldn’t be more wrong.

He writes that “[c]apitalists are starting to understand that mass poverty and unemployment is politically destabilizing,” but they have always understood this. Because the economic system of Big Business and Big Government has been so deftly efficient at bleeding working people dry, the ruling class has found it expedient to assemble a welfare framework.

Their bureaucracy for “public assistance,” though, whatever its appearance, is grounded not in the humanity or benevolence of the elite, but in their shrewd calculations. As in Tolstoy’s famous parable, the farmers are eventually “afraid that the cows may cease to yield milk,” and so “they invent various means of improving the condition of these cows.”

For the total state’s “helping professions,” public service consists in condescendingly rounding up and corralling those that need to be “helped,” so that their lives can be strictly regimented and overseen. The absolute best thing that the state could do for the poor — the one thing that would truly change their posture on a fundamental level — is the one that is never broached in “respectable,” mainstream debate. Under no circumstances is it considered that we might, returning to Tolstoy’s allegorical farm, “take down the fence and grant the cows their natural freedom.”

As a practical matter, the “proper balance” between commercial interests on the one hand and the state on the other has been no balance at all. Whereas “balance” implies a trade-off between two poles or sides of a scale, the interests of state and corporate power are one and the same. Indeed, to suggest even that they can be differentiated in the prevailing economic system is absurd, ignoring the pervasive coercion that runs through it at every level.

Cohen’s version of “public service” is no more than a mantra invoked to glorify the sweeping, anti-competitive affronts against a true free market that the state institutes to profit the rich. The state-corporate projects Cohen fawningly praises are the sorts of things that require eminent domain land-grabs for new Pfizer complexes; his darling infrastructure investments are the ruin of the spontaneous order of a market freed from state intervention — the kind of market that could open doors for America’s least fortunate.

Quite contrary to the fretful contentions of the Earth Institute’s Executive Director, neither an “attack on public service” nor even a faint disapproval of its underlying values is prevailing in Washington. The public-private collusion Cohen is so enamored of, rather than retrenching, has left room for “the free market” of his nightmares only at the narrowest margins of economic life. Market anarchism would restore peaceful trade and association to its proper place within society, turning social services over to the forces inherent in genuine community.

Having confused American state capitalism with the free market, Cohen accepts (completely uncritically) the asinine folk tale that, in our current economy, there is some kind of bright line dividing “the private and the public sectors.” He doesn’t seem to notice that, far from advocating anything remotely close to a true free market, the “capitalists” he refers to have persistently been at the forefront of calls for “the mix of public and private roles.”

Cohen’s program of faux “public service” has won the day — has allowed huge, bureaucratic corporations and government agencies to crowd out or completely preclude competitors and to dominate our lives. Instead of cheerleading for more of the same, genuine public service would mean unshackling voluntary cooperation and exchange, allowing communities themselves to decide how to help themselves.

Market anarchists contend that absent state monopolization — and its real-world effect of creating scarcities to enrich the well-connected — everything from utilities to aid for the poor would witness vast improvements. While Cohen would aggrandize the authoritarian institutions that have decimated the economy, market anarchists would empower individuals to work together to solve, rather than create, society’s problems.

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