Public v. Private: Which part of “of the people, by the people, for the people” don’t you get?

Originally published on February 26, 2009, at


Thomas Jefferson -- photo by chadh, licensed creative commons

Thomas Jefferson -- photo by chadh, licensed creative commons

If it were possible to take a step back from the current focus on the economic crisis with its financial breakdown, housing glut, contracting commerce, growing unemployment, and menacing deficits, we could make out an even broader political picture:  the failure of the me-only private vision of civic life and its replacement by a public-private partnership of sound leadership.

Take the four areas that President Obama has now committed to reform:  finance, education, energy and health care.  In each area, those whose political philosophy is that public vision is necessarily faulty, and private interest is all, have pushed and pulled their version of reform through the Republican Revolution of 1994, talk-radio over-simplification, and anti-government rhetoric.  This is not to say that Republicans, per se, embrace a private-only solution to reform, as they don’t, but many who have sought to gut the government and replace all regulation and public funding with self-interest and free-markets have done so at least masquerading as conservatives.

In the financial arena, faith was placed in the market to regulate itself.  Instead, short-term self-interest led too many to take fatal risks requiring government bailout to protect the larger economy.

In public education, anti-government vision led to stripping schools of resources, spurring many who could afford it to choose private schools with outstanding resources and leaving others to suffer emaciated public education.

Our energy system allowed the market to dictate the most economically efficient energy despite the consequent flow of money to nations who act against our national interests.  Short- and long-term environmental costs associated with self-interested energy choices were shifted to the public from the private sector.

Finally, health care expenditures press business and family budgets and leave many under-served, yet there is resistance to public supervision of the health care system, where industry money influences elections and portrays government action as the problem, despite huge inefficiencies in the current system.

Critics of the new president’s budget and priorities attack the plan as “big government.”  This is nonsense.  Limited regulation, adequate funding for education, and limited macro-management of sectors of the economy with strategic and economic national importance are not big government but good government. Calling spending “socialism” because it increases the budget is pure political rhetoric. We need to balance the budget, but we need education as well.  Good government provides oversight, restricts harmful actions, and promotes positive ones.

There are, of course, inefficiencies in the system.  President Obama has in no way acted to protect and preserve government waste.  Improvements are also part of good government.  But the fact that members of the government, whose philosophy was “hands off,” failed to regulate the financial sector, is hardly an indictment of the ability of Americans to benefit from government of the people, by the people, for the people.  Good public leadership and judgment has tremendous potential, not to take over for private action, but to guide private enterprise to serve democratically determined purposes and to fill the vacuum created in public decision-making by those seeking to gut, rather than reform government.

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