The US's youngest president, Theodore Roosevelt, who succeeded William McKinley after his assassination. Photograph: Getty Images.
Not since a popular children’s toy was named after him and his face was chiselled into the side of Mount Rushmore has Teddy Roosevelt been so fashionable. He is the latest historical influence on the current Labour leadership and he attracts interest across the political spectrum. If the current fascination continues, Roosevelt could have a radical impact on our understanding of public interest. If so, there would be enormous change for the public and private sectors alike – and that would be a good thing.
The critical argument that Roosevelt made is found in his 1901 State of the Union Address, "Great corporations exist only because they are created and safeguarded by our institutions; and it is therefore our right and our duty to see that they work in harmony with these institutions." Roosevelt was arguing that the legal underpinning of the corporate world raises questions of legitimacy and public value. It is a relationship between the state and those it benefits. Such a relationship is dynamic. However, too often our politics has failed to refresh a dialogue about this relationship for our times.
Conservatives have fallen back into minimal state mode. Social democrats too often unquestioningly see virtue in public institutions and have a suspicion of private ones. The socialist left takes it one step further. None of these positions really gets us into the real debate: what public benefits should we insist upon in return for privilege?
Companies have legal protections such as intellectual property and enjoy the fruits of public investment in people and infrastructure. The media also is similarly legal privileged and protected through human rights. Public institutions such as the NHS, the BBC and Parliament enjoy similar privileges and direct public funding in addition. For example, are the low relative levels of survival from cancer an acceptable return on our investment in healthcare? It is arguable that the public is being short-changed.
The problem comes when companies, the media, public institutions, and democratic representatives fail to accept their public responsibility. The recently completed Independent Review of the Police Federation, chaired by Sir David Normington with the RSA acting as secretariat, posed precisely this question. The Police Federation has existed in law for almost a century to give an important voice to frontline police officers. It benefits from direct and indirect public funding. However, too often in recent times, it has appeared to take a narrow view of its responsibility to serve the public interest as well its members’ interest. In the end, that narrow view undermined its members’ interests too.
The argument the report makes, in the spirit of Teddy Roosevelt perhaps, is that public privileges provoke public responsibilities. To widen this argument out, it is something that many in both the corporate and public environment may need to relearn. Private organisations still have public responsibilities. Public organisations have to demonstrable they serve the public interest to the best of their abilities. Organisations such as the Police Federation, or the BBC, universities, public sub-contractors, or care providers sit in a quasi-public environment. Their responsibilities are to ensure that they creatively seek out means of aligning public and private interests. If they don’t, their legitimacy is threatened.
Roosevelt was sophisticated in his argument. He knew that the moral righteousness of the political stump was insufficient. Instead, there was a conscious and ongoing relationship between legal and regulatory boundaries of national authority and private institutions. He was pro-business and pro-market but was savvy enough to know that by itself that was not enough. If economic progress came at the expense of social progress that would be deeply unsatisfactory. Efficiency, national wealth, and work should not be sacrificed in a populist whirr of regulatory zeal. With those parameters in mind, everything else was up for discussion.
So any dynamic discussion of the compact between public and private has to promote innovative change alongside public safeguards including real transparency and accountability, It has to acknowledge the right of people to pursue their interests as long as it is not harmful to others. Wealth creation must be counter-balanced with social awareness. It must seek to widen the range of interests met without being suckered by vested interests. That requires a dynamic conversation about the boundary and relationship between the public and private. It means empowering creative change while widening opportunity and promoting wider social, environmental, and public welfare.
Riding a bull moose across a river, heading up a troop of rough riders, and big game hunting is probably not appropriate for today’s public servants. In his understanding of the interrelationship between public law, institutions, public and private interest, however, Teddy Roosevelt has much to teach today’s politicians. A re-learnt art of dynamic public and private dynamic tension would help us feel our way to more balanced set of national institutions. To get there, we need a more profound understanding of why our current crop of institutions are as they are and how they might change. T.R. is of great assistance in that endeavour and also in where we might head next.
Anthony Painter is Director, Independent review of the Police Federation at the RSA