The Public Thing

Somehow over the course of our national history private came to be synonymous with good, and public with bad. Private schools are good, private golf clubs are good, and private bathrooms are good. Private beaches seem universally preferable to public ones though sand, water, and air may be indistinguishable. By extension, public swimming pools are bad, public hospitals used to be bad before they came to be called not-for-profits, public telephones might be a necessary evil but definitely are not preferred.

A front row box seat along the first base line, or on the 50 yard line, was something really special until private sky boxes came to be prized, even though they are about as far away from the action as possible without being home watching TV. Private planes are certainly preferred above public ones, and the car is prized above all as the mode of private transportation accessible to almost everyone. The car may actually illustrate the more general notion that to be stuck with public transportation is to be socially stuck, though New York City is always a prominent exception. For the mentally ill, however, the general notion applies in spades: where the public sector provides a state institution, the private offers a sanatorium.

Private lessons in anything are better than a group version of instruction; the same might be said for dining, but with a perverse twist that requires the luxury of private space to be stuffed within an otherwise public restaurant. People who would never think of sitting on the front stoop with a bottle of beer to watch the traffic go by, will pay for a private table to do just that at a sidewalk cafe.

It is a matter of some annoyance when otherwise public environments are commandeered by individuals or small groups and effectively privatized. Examples are public benches or chess tables perpetually occupied by an identifiable person or group, a public park taken over by the homeless, and a public beach access to which is hidden from, or otherwise made inconvenient to, the masses to create a de facto exclusivity.

One reason shopping malls are so appealing may be their ability to package private space to look like public, and thus enable shoppers to have it both ways. Mall owners must occasionally suffer the tendency of some users to treat the commercial environment as a public space available for speech, fund raising and labor strife. But for those who did not stand out too much, the mall became a splendid hang out; like having your own private downtown.

There was a time in this century when the words public and utility were almost synonymous. Technically, utilities were private companies, but because they were heavily regulated as “natural monopolies” they had a strong public flavor. This permitted them to be twice despised for their intransigence and unresponsiveness. “Ma Bell” is the examplary target. In due course, the evil of utilities was identified as their public aspect, so they became candidates for privatization. And if this conversion works for utilities why not for transportation, corrections, the provision of child care and other social services for the needy, and the always controversial public schools? So far there is no suggestion we return to competing private firefighting companies, or a mercenary army, but the absence of a clear value for things public suggests that, at least in principle, no functions are both essentially — and happily — public.

For a while the meritocratic civil service redeemed governance because it liberated public service from the corruptions of traditional patronage. But within a generation “civil servant” gave way to the intensely hated “bureaucrat.” This may be a legacy of the cold war, and perhaps that period twisted our sensibilities in more general ways. The concept of public itself may now bear the stain of our experience with oppressive collectivism. Certainly it is in the interests of some groups to install this connection as a permanent aspect of American thought.

These observations suggest polls reporting how much people distrust their government may be missing the point, which is that antipathy toward government follows from it being the quintessential “public thing,” the literal translation of res publica from which the term republic was formed. A Swiftian suggestion might be that if we dislike government because it is such a very public thing, perhaps a general form of privatization should be considered, one requiring us to abandon the State in favor of a private corporation in which citizens hold shares in accordance with their means and influence the company accordingly.

More seriously, what we seem to want from public life is that it provide us with the freedom to indulge our private life. This is not exactly what the Greeks had in mind for citizenship, but then they could never have imagined Disneyland as a private place.












©Al Katz • Prof. of law SUNY, Buffalo, 1969-1989 (ret.)