Like pornography, the public interest is something we know when we see it. Or so we like to think. But one man's meat is another man's ordure. So let us tread with a certain caution.
Though in one form or another the relevant questions have been tossed around for millennia, they have acquired renewed impetus of late with the growing disquiet among many academics and serious commentators about the centrality of economic and, especially, financial objectives in public policy, along with various, more widespread anxieties about the role and independence of the mainstream media. Whatever their particular concerns, the doubters' approach turns on an often inchoate notion of the public interest and a sense that it is being betrayed.
Underlying this is a more fundamental conviction about what we should not be afraid to call the human condition and what makes us the kind of beings we are. In most instances this is not addressed overtly; but it is entailed by the arguments used or postures adopted. Is there such a thing as 'proper' human behaviour? Needless to add, the debate is ultimately intractable.
Among those prosecuting the sceptical case about economics and public policy -the glitterati include Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz and, in Australia, John Quiggin - the most accessible for non-specialists is arguably the father-and-son team of Robert and Edward Skidelsky. A recent book, How Much Is Enough? Money and the Good Life, pools their expertise in political economy, moral and political philosophy to synthesise and expand arguments from ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, through to such figures as Adam Smith, Bertrand Russell and John Maynard Keynes. (Baron Skidelsky is a leading Keynes scholar and the book may be viewed as an extended reflection on, and modification of, the sentiments and arguments of Keynes' 1930 essay, 'Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren'.)
The result is a dismissal of current economistic fashions, notably the obsession with growth, and a proposed alternative ideal of the good life with regard to which - here the authors quote Keynes' teacher Alfred Marshall - economics should be 'the study of the "material prerequisites of well-being," a definition that preserve(s) the Aristotelian and Christian concept of wealth as a means to an end'.
The central critical case is best summarised in the following passage:
Making money cannot be an end in itself - at least for anyone not suffering from acute mental disorder. To say that my purpose in life is to make more and more money is like saying that my aim in eating is to get fatter and fatter. And what is true of individuals is also true of societies. Making money cannot be the permanent business of humanity, for the simple reason that there is nothing to do with money except spend it. And we cannot just go on spending. There will come a point when we will be satiated or disgusted or both. Or will we?
The alternative is a revival of 'the old idea of economics as a moral science, a science of human beings in communities, not of interacting robots'. Public policy should be grounded in a positive vision of diverse human capabilities; and public discourse centred on how best to realise such potential rather than simply maximising consumption. Economics 'can bring us to the threshold of plenty, but must then retire from its oversight of our lives'. As Keynes argued, economists should occupy much the same niche as dentists, while the majority of the population get on with 'the art of life itself'.
A similar outlook informs current misgivings about the direction taken by what are called the quality media, and the problem of undue influence resulting from personal or institutional connections and ownership. The analogy is not, of course, exact but there is in the very notion of an independent media voice a tacit appeal to a claim of moral responsibility separate from, if not contrary to, commercial interests. There is certainly an inbuilt tension.
In the case neither of public policy nor putative media nonalignment is this a call to sackcloth and ashes. Just as Keynes and even Marx considered capitalism a necessary and desirable precondition for a society that promoted creative well-being - Athenian philosopher kings went for the simpler expedient of slavery - so robust quality media need to be part of a viable business. The demand in this latter case is not that the publications in question lose money or be worthy to the point of unreadability, but that editorial direction not be determined by, though it may depend on, profits or patronage.
To date, there is little sign of such admirable ideas gaining popular traction. With regard to public debate, the money-grubbers still clearly have the upper hand. As George Monbiot lamented after the failure of the latest Rio talkfest: 'We have used our unprecedented freedoms … not to agitate for justice, for redistribution, for the defence of our common interests, but to pursue the dopamine hits triggered by the purchase of products we do not need.'
As for quality media, the sanguine talk is of new, always unspecified, business models; while the pessimists foresee the end of the established print and broadcast order, and an even greater intellectual and ideological ghettoisation than already exists, nurtured in the quicksand of social media.