One of the defining American debates is the ongoing question of Public vs. Private. Another way to think of it is — what is mine vs. what is ours? This question runs through issues related to economics, rights, education, health, property and so on.
Some see these ideas of public and private mostly at odds. An example of zero-sum thinking (see here for a great summary of research on how this thinking plays out politically). If the public benefits it must be at the expense of the private and vice versa. Others believe that the public and private can co-exist in ways that are beneficial for both.
There has been an historical ebb and flow of how we generally perceive the relative value of private and public things. As a country founded on principles of liberty and freedom, we have often prioritized the private. Yet when we feel as if private interests have exploited the greater public good, we have whipsawed back to protecting the public (e.g national parks, social security). Conversely, when we feel as if public goods either no longer serve us well or overreach, we course correct the other way (e.g. charter schools, outsourcing government functions). Throughout our history, you’ll find other examples of this yin and yang at play.
So where does that leave us today?
We see that our private well-being is greatly impacted by our public health.
We increase how we value both our private homes and our public spaces.
We’re grateful for the public investment that created the internet and private companies that bring us our service.
We no longer take for granted the public roads that allow the transport of our private goods.
We miss the public amenities like parks, libraries, beaches and museums and our private moments alone.
We feel the strengths and limitations of public education, in comparison to private institutions.
We question whether our private data should be shared for public good.
We clamor for public leadership and programs and in their absence hope that private leaders do the right thing.
We lead our private lives while longing to return to a more public life.
We often conflate the public with the government. They are not the same. Public means “of the people” or “for all the people.” Government is just an entity (albeit a large one) that is tasked with serving the public. Creating services, programs and policies accessible for the greater public good.
But we, as individuals, also serve and contribute to the public. You are private, but we are all the public. When we fail to invest in it, we fail to invest in ourselves.
The ideas of what is public and what is private will continue to resonate as we make our way out of this. It will serve us well if we opt to not to pit them against one another but find the value in each and invest accordingly.