Summary of "The Power of Public Ideas"

Summary of

The Power of Public Ideas

By Robert B. Reich

Summary written by Conflict Research Consortium Staff

Citation: Robert B. Reich. The Power of Public Ideas. Cambridge: Ballinger Publishing Company, 1988, 251pp.

The Power of Public Ideas is an examination of the creation and maintenance, and governmental expression, of public ideas and their effect on policy-making in a democracy. It is a collection of the essays of multiple authors.

The Power of Public Ideas will be of interest to those who wish to understand the relationship between public ideas and policy-making. This work begins with an introduction by the editor in which he examines the philosophical principles underlying two views of policy-making in the United States. This is followed by an examination of the role of self-interest in the behavior of individuals as citizens. Both economic and political self-interest are considered and the conclusion is drawn that self-interest is the primary motivator of citizens' behavior. The contrary position is taken in the next essay which asserts that people are motivated by normative conceptions of what is good for society. The author asserts that the position which holds self-interest to be the primary or singular motivator discounts the possibility of altruism and public spirit and the relationship of the latter to good public policy.

The next essay addresses why certain normative ideas are especially powerful motivators of citizens' actions and become public ideas. The author illustrates his point with examples from the field of criminal justice. The relationship between ideas about drunken driving and drunk driving laws, and ideas about the treatment of the natural world and environmental policy are explored. In chapter four the author argues "... that government inevitably expresses powerful normative ideas about what is expected of citizens and what society is for, that citizens want government to undertake this function, but that this role also presents significant problems and dangers for democracy." The subsequent chapter examines the political theory of the procedural republic. The author, Michael Sandel, (a communitarian theorist) discusses individual rights and procedural regularity and their effect on the mutual obligations upon which a society depends.

Chapter six is authored by the editor wherein he asserts that "... policy-makers' primary responsibility [in a democracy] should be to foster public deliberation about where the public interest lies and what our common obligations are ...". Reich's consideration of the policy-makers' primary duty raises the following question for the next author. "What can policy analysis contribute to the process of public deliberation?" Toward this end the author distinguishes and examines two types of policy analysis. The conclusion of this examination is that policy-makers are not merely "... neutral technicians" but ought to actively seek and "... advance alternative means of defining and solving problems". Chapter eight asserts that it is possible for public leaders to manage and improve the public's problem solving ability by carefully monitoring and administering the public deliberation process. The final chapter examines the role of the media in producing public ideas and promoting public deliberation. The author asserts that the media is an essential part in the public deliberation process, but can also cause the degradation of that process if not properly managed.

The Power of Public Ideas is a collection of carefully considered views on the relationship between public ideas and the formation of public policy. It offers advice to both the policy-maker and the active citizen on the ways in which the public deliberation process might be employed more profitably to more effectively affect public policy.