As we listen to the news and try to establish the priorities we should assign to worrying about climate change, obesity, subsurface water depletion and the apparent international outbreak of bedbugs, we have been compelled to ponder a phenomenon about which we think too little has been said.
There is a tendency for the news media to identify anyone who has a product or a service to sell as a “special interest,” inclined to recruit lobbyists to skew legislative and regulatory processes. Anyone who attacks that product or service is thought to be a public-spirited champion of equity, fair play, consumer protection and the common good.
We have never quite been able to believe that people who receive salaries and benefits from nonprofit organizations funded (or administered) by groups of people with particular axes to grind are any more public-spirited than people who make their livings by finding willing purchasers for a legal good – gasoline, vending services, electricity, milk chocolate, and so forth.
We don’t understand why working toward a future in which one will prosper by meeting a demand for refreshments away from home or wireless telephone services is selfish, while working toward a scenario in which one will be elevated from the obscurity of a college physics department into the opulence of a high government (or “non-government organization”) post offering extensive travel, prompt and willing publication and the opportunity to impose one’s will on large numbers of less-favored individuals is viewed as altruistic and enlightened.
None of this is to suggest that bad faith is widespread. Our point is only that there is no more bad faith on the private-sector, market side than there is among its assailants. But there does seem to be a two-part difficulty that works against identifying real problems and finding solutions to them.
One part is the prevalent view that the public is impatient with, or simply cannot understand, any argument that requires more than 30 seconds to present. The electronic news media probably are most to blame for this. As a result, interest groups of all sorts attempt to compress the expression of their viewpoints into something like advertising slogans. Repeating one of these incessantly is hailed as “staying on message.”
The second component is the increasing use of indirection in advocating an agenda. If an interest group thinks that most people will not modify their behavior to further its ends, it endeavors to frighten them with scare stories about something different.
About 20 years ago, the paper filters used in coffee brewers were attacked because the fibers used to make them were purified with chlorine bleach. It was alleged that the effluent from the paper mills was contaminating streams and rivers. Environmentally sensitive consumers sought unbleached filters, and anyone who sold the bleached kind was accused of ecological crimes.
A leading environmental advocacy group accepted the invitation from one of our trade associations to participate in a panel discussion, with representatives of filter and other paper goods supply companies. The environmental delegate was a genial and articulate fellow, and the debate was very instructive. He cheerfully agreed that the paper industry had done a good job of conforming to government regulations for wastewater treatment. He had no opinion on the argument that unbleached paper filters contained organic chemicals of unknown effect on humans.
The real point, he said, is that his group was opposed to disposables in general, on moral grounds. Return-to-service filters, cloth or metal mesh, and return-to-service cups were available and workable; people should use those. That would reduce our depletion of natural resources and encourage a greater sense of individual responsibility and stewardship for the earth. Anything that might frighten people away from using any disposable product was, therefore, good. The end justified the means.
The argument against a “throw-away” society has respectable antecedents, and is worth considering. However, this was not the “message” that was being conveyed by the press releases and media coverage. This sort of thing is done all the time.
The belief that the public at large is too stupid to recognize a valid argument for a certain course of action, and so must be lied to, also has a long history. But we don’t think it is consistent with belief in democracy.