Not so long ago I was involved in a group arguing for reform of the British media. The participants were self-consciously liberal and progressive academics and journalists, the kinds of people who would be horrified at the suggestion that that they were in any way prejudiced. When I set out some ideas about how a programme of reform might be structured I didn’t expect to raise many eyebrows. But as soon as I said that citizens should have some meaningful say in how the money they give to support journalism is spent, the response was surprising. One of those present exclaimed in horror, "But they will just want stories about Rihanna!" The contents of the public sphere are far too important to be left to the public, it seems.
Last week, a friend sent me a link to a 2010 column by the science journalist Ben Goldacre. In passing Goldacre mentioned "an excellent suggestion" from Rupert Sheldrake, that "maybe 1 per cent, maybe 0.01 per cent of the total UK research budget could be given to the public, so that they could decide what their research obsessions were". Goldacre described Sheldrake as someone who "believes that pets are psychic", which does less than justice to one of the more interesting critics of scientific orthodoxy.
What struck me most, though, was Goldacre's confident contempt for what he was sure the public would want to fund. "Obviously most of the money would get spent on psychic pets, and which vegetables cure cancer," he wrote. (In fairness, he did allow himself to hope that a little of this publicly controlled money would be used to fund "good quality robust research to find out whether exams are getting easier", his own preoccupation at the time.)
Claims about the public
There is no evidence that the public would only want stories about Rihanna if they were given some say in shaping the editorial agenda of news organisations. There is no evidence that people would spend most of any research funds they controlled on psychic pets and cancer-curing vegetables. I am sure that neither of these people would dream of making a similar, unfounded generalisations about any group of adults in society. Imagine for a moment the uproar if they did. But they are happy to assert that the public as a whole is so witless that it cannot decide how to spend its own money.
You can see why. Claims about the public aren't claims about the speaker and his or her peers. They are claims about them. Not you dear reader, or the people you know, but the ones you don't know, the ones out there. Anyone who objects to the slander can be assured that they weren’t the intended target. They aren't obsessed with Rihanna or therapeutic vegetables, of course they aren’t. It’s the others. They are the ones who can't be trusted with the power to decide.
"There is no evidence that the public would only want stories about Rihanna if they were given some say in shaping the editorial agenda of news organisations."
The effect is subtly but substantially conservative. The sins of the dominant classes in society are neatly transferred onto a mass that will not answer back, that cannot answer back, being defined in terms of its ignorance and incoherence. And yet, consider the world that exists, rather than the democratic dystopia so often imagined.
In this real world, the public don’t pay photographers to follow Rihanna around or pay journalists to make things up about her. The people who own and run newspapers do that. The public don't spend huge amounts of public money on inane or useless scientific research. The major recipients of government subsidies do that.
Donald Light and Joel Lexchin have recently written in the British Medical Journal about "the hidden business model" of pharmaceutical companies that "centres on turning out scores of minor variations" to existing drugs. The results of this "hidden business model" are not hard to predict. According to a number of independent reviews, at least 85 per cent "of all new drugs provide few or no clinical advantages for patients".
Power and education
Yet the sector responsible for this lousy track record continues to receive massive research and development subsidies from the unwitting taxpayer. In Britain in 2009, the last year for which figures are available, the National Health Service gave pharmaceutical companies £1.9 billion to help fund innovation. That kind of money could provide lavish support for all manner of experiments and inquiries, which may or may not meet with Ben Goldacre's approval. Rupert Sheldrake could be given his own institute and there would be hundreds of millions left over for prizes to reward the inventors of clinically useful treatments, as Light and Lexchin propose.
At the moment corporate executives, scientists and politicians handle the oh-so serious business of healthcare research, far from the gaze of the supposedly foolish and incompetent public. Secure in their technocratic insulation they fritter away billions in mutually enjoyable and rewarding ways. The arrangement seems almost divine in its reckless indifference to the common good. The companies' "hidden business model" remains hidden because the state doesn't want to look for it. In a recent note to me the Department of Health confirmed that it "does not currently request any information from companies regarding the way the R&D allowances are spent".
Since the Second World War we have tried leaving important and difficult decisions in the hands of the experts of the regulatory state or to the play of market forces. The financial crisis and the bungling response have made both options seem absurd. This might seem like a time to start thinking seriously about democracy. So why are we so convinced that open deliberation between civic equals will produce worse results?
Here's a little of the answer. It is a truism of liberal reform that education empowers. For almost every question of social improvement, more education is the good safe answer. But maybe the relationship between power and education works both ways. While education empowers, power educates. In a society where inequalities of wealth and prestige are justified in large part by inequalities of knowledge, maybe that's what's really frightening. For what is the liberal reformer to do, if people take matters into their own hands and find that they are more than capable of government?
Dan Hind is the author of two books, The Threat to Reason and The Return of the Public. His pamphlet, Common Sense: Occupation, Assembly, and the Future of Liberty, was published as an e-book in March. He is a member of the Tax Justice Network.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.