The case of Wal-Mart makes us realise just how badly we lack a way of talking about the public good that is not framed purely in terms of economics. The huge fortunes made at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th centuries were broken up by anti-monopoly and anti-cartel legislation , because they had been accumulated at the expense of the public good. That is a useful idea, and one that needs to be revived and used as a yardstick. John Lanchester, The Price of Pickles (reviewing books about Wal-Mart).I agree. Corporate power has grown immensely and politicians are increasingly in its thrall. Our physical and social environments are more and more determined by corporate wishes than by any idea of the public good. The government policies I know best are perverse subsidies. Their effects have been disastrous: they help denude and destroy our countryside and cities; the protect large, global concerns at the expense of small, local businesses, and they represent a massive waste of scarce resources. I say 'have been' but these policies persist - and that's even more shameful. If you look carefully amongst the news stories, (skipping the serious stuff about Princess Margaret's alleged illegitimate son, the skateboarding rhinoceros etc) you will see reports of the WWF's study saying that humanity's use of resources is unsustainable. The evidence does seem to be piling up, but what is disheartening is the widening gap between where we are headed, and what most people presumably want.
Many of those in power, if they think at all about the public good, probably identify it with the financial health of corporations. A Social Policy Bond regime puts off some well-meaning people, because it offers cash rewards to those who would supply public goods. I understand their apprehension: a bond regime would use markets to solve classic problems of market failure. Unfortunately we live in a monetised world. Without financial incentives there's little hope of reining back the corporations and their puppets in government. It's paradoxical and perhaps regrettable but also, in my view, necessary, to pay people to do the right thing. After all, we'd not be rushing headlong into planetary collapse if it were not for the monetary incentives and taxpayer-funded corporate welfare programmes that currently reward the destruction of public goods.