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Weintraub - The Theory and Politics of the Public/Private Distinction

Weintraub - The Theory and Politics of the Public/Private Distinction

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Published by Jeff Weintraub
from Jeff Weintraub & Krishan Kumar, eds., Public and Private in Thought and Practice: Perspectives on a Grand Dichotomy (Chicago, 1997)
from Jeff Weintraub & Krishan Kumar, eds., Public and Private in Thought and Practice: Perspectives on a Grand Dichotomy (Chicago, 1997)

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Published by: Jeff Weintraub on Oct 21, 2010
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07/10/2013

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IttrWintraub
&
Krishan
Kumar
editors
tr
PuBLlc
AND
PntvATE
Perspectiveson
ONE
The
Theory
and
Politics
of
the
PubliclPrivateDistinctionIttrWeintraub
Binary distinctions
are
ananalytic
procedure,
buttheir
usefulness
does
not
guarantee
that
existence
divides
like that.
'S7'e
should
look
with
sus-
picionon
anyone
who
declared
that
there
are
twokinds
of
people,or
two
kinds
of
reality
or
process.
-M"ry
Douglas,'Judgemenrs
on
James
Frazier"
I
THE
DISTINCTIoN
BETwEEN
"public"
and
"private"
has
been
a
central
and
characteristicpreoccupation
of
Western
thought
since
classical
antiquiry,
and
has
long
served as
apoint
of
entry
into
many
of
the
k.y
issues
of
social
and
political
analysis,
of
moralandpolitical
debate,
and
of
the
ordering
of
everyday
life.
In
NorbertoBobbio's
useful phrase,
the
public/private
distinc-
tion
stands
out
as
one
of
the
"grand
dichotomies"
ofVestern
thought,
in
the
sense
of
a
binaryopposition
that
is
used
to
subsume
a
wide
range
of
other
important
distinctions
and
thatattempts
(rnoreor
less
successfully)
todichoro-
mize
thesocial
universe
in
a comprehensive
andsharply
demarcated
way.2
In
recent
decades,
different
versions
of
this
distinction
have
attainednew
or
re,
newedprominence
in
a
wide
range
of
disciplinesand
areas
of
inquiry,
from
"public
choice"
economics
to
socialhistoryand
feminist
scholarship.
However,the
use
of
theconceptual
vocabulary
of
"public"
and"privare"
often
generates
as
much
confusion
as
illumination,not
leastbecause
differentsets
of
people
who
employ
these conceptsmean
yery
differentthings
byThis
essay
tookitsfirst
written form
as
apaper presented
at
the
1990annual
meeting
of
the American
Politicd
Science
Association
for
a
session
organized
by
J.*
Cohen,
and
its
prehistory
goes
back
to
an
invited
lecture
for
a
course
offered
by
PaulSrarr,
so
I
owe
them
thanks
for
helpingprovokeme
to
focus
my
thoughts
onthis
subject.
During
the
essay's
gestation
I
have
benefitted
from
discussions
on
relevant
issues
with
more
people
than
I
can acknowledge here,
including
Philip
Kasinitz,
ffiI
co-editor
lfuishan
Kumar,
and
the
other contributors
to
this
volume.
l.
Daedalus L07,
no.4
(fall
1978):
161.
I
amindebted
forthis quotation
roJos6
Casa-
nova's
Public
Religions
in
the
Modcrn
World
(L994),whichinturn
draws
in
valuable
ways
ontheargumentof
thepresent
essay:
see
in
particular
chapter
2,"Privare
and
PublicReligions."
2.
Norberto
Bobbio,
"The
Great
Dichotomy: Public/Private,"in
Democraryand
Dicta-
torship.
IN
TTTOUGHT
AND
PNACTICE
a
GrandDichotomy
f
U,niversityofChicago
Press
Chicago
&
London
(
rrr?)The
 
J
err
WeTNTRAUB
*1srn-and
sometimes,
without quite
realizing
it,
mean
several
things
at
once.
The
expanditgliterature
on
the problem
of"public
goods,"
which
takesits
lead
from
neoclassical
economics,
is addressing
quite
a
different
subject
from
the
"public
sphere"
of
discussion
andpolidcal
action
delineated
by
JiirgenHabermas
or
Hannah
Arendt,
not to
mention the
"public
life"
of
sociabilirycharted
by
PhilippeAribs
or
Richard
Sennett.
\flhat
do
thecurrent
debates
over"privatization,"
largely
concerning
whether
governmental
functions
should
be
taken over
by
corporations,
have
to
do
with
the
world
exploredby
Ariis
and
Duby'smultivolume
History
{
Priuate
Life3-families,
sexualiry,
modes
of
intimary
and
obligation-or with
the way
that
"privacy"
has
emerged
as
acentralconcept
in
the
controversyover
abortion
rights?
Unfortunately,
the
widespread
invocation
of
"public"
and
"private"
as
or-
ganizing
categories
is
not
usually
informedby
a
careful
consideration
of
the
meaning and
irnplicationsofthe
conceptsthemselves.
And,
even
where
thereis
sensitiviry
to
these issues,
those
who
draw
on
one
or
anotherversion
of
the
public/private distinction
are
rarely attentive
to,
or
even
clearly
aware
of,
the
wider
range
of
alternativeframeworks
within
which
it
is
employed.For
exam-
ple,many
discussionstake
for
grantedthatdistinguishing
"public"
frorn
"pri-
vate" is
equivalent
to
establishing
*re
boundary
of
thepoliticala-rhough,
even here,
it
makes
a
considerablediflbrence
whether the
political
is
conceived
in
terms
of
theadministrative
state
or of
the
"public
sphere."
But
the
public/private
distinction is
also used
as
a
conceptual
framework
for
demarcating
other important
boundaries: between
the
"private"
worlds
of
intimacy
and
the
family andthe
"public"
worlds
of
sociabiliry
or
the
rnarket
economy;
between
theinner
priv
acy
of
theindividual
self
andthe
"interaction
order"
of
Ervitg
Goffrnan's
Relations
in
Public;and
so
on
in
rich
(andoverlapping)profusion.
The
public/privatedistinction,
in
short,
is
not
unitary,
but
protean.
It
comprises,
not
a
singlepaired
opposition,but
a
complex
familyof them,
nei-
ther
mutually
reducible
nor
wholly
unrelated.These
different
usages
do
notsimply
point to
different
phenomena; often they
rest
on
differenrunderlying
images
of
the
social
world,
are
driven by different
concerns,generate
differentproblematics, and
raise very
different
issues.
It
is
alltoo
common
for
these
3.
PhilippefuiEs and
Georges
Duby et
*1.,eds.,
,4
History
of
Priaate
Life,
5
vols.(1987
-9
I
).
4.
This
assumption
is
builtright
into
the
title
of
a
valuable collecdonedited
by
Charles
Maier,
Changing
Boundaries
of
the
Political:
Essays
on
the
Euoluing
Baknce
betweentbeState
andSociety,TubticandFriuate
in
Europe
(1987);
however,
a number
of
the
essays
in
*rebook
make
it
clear,
in
various ways,
that thepictureis
actually
more
complicated.
THr
Pualrc/Pnlvnrr
DrsrtNCTIoN
different
fields
of
discoutse
to
operate
in
mutual
isolation,
orto
generare
con-
fusion
(ot
absurdiqf)
when
their
categories
are
casually
or
unreflectively
blended.
If
the
phenomenaevoked
by
these
different
usages,
andthe
issues
they
raise,
wereentirely disconnected,
then
it
mightnot
be
terriblydifficultto
sortthem
out;but
mattersare
not
as
simple
as
that,either.
Rather,
these
discourses
ofpublic
and private
cover
a
variery of
subjects
that
are
analytically
distinct and,at the
same
time,
subtly-ofren
confusingly-overlapping
andinternryined,
These
different
publiclprivate
distinctions
emerge,
to
put
it
anotherway,
from different
(often
implicit
oronly
partly
conscious)
theoretical
languages
or
universes
of
discourse,each
with
its
own
complex
historical
cargo
of
as,
sumptions
and
connotations.
While
the
analysis
of
public
andprivate
can
usefully
be
informed
by
a
numberof
these
approaches,
the
result
is
mosr
likelyto
be
fruitful
cross-fertilizationand
reasoned
contestation
opposed
to
the
prevaili.g
conceptual
confusion-if
westart
with
a cleargrasp
of
thediffer-
ences
benveen
them.
Not
only
is
this
essential
to
avoidmissingthe
point
of
arguments
that
employthe
categories
of
public
andprivate;
it
canalso helpus
reflect
with
conceptual
self-awareness
about
how
far the
concerns
of
these
different
perspectivescan
orshould
besynthesized.Some
of
these
differences
simply involve
variations
in
terminology,
and
could
be cleared
up
(or
recon-
ciled) conceptually
without
requiring
any very agonized
choices.
But
to
a
con-
siderable
degree
they
also
reflect
deeperdifferences
in
both
theoretical
and
ideological
commitments,
in
sociological
assumptions,
and/or
in
sociohistori-
cal
context.Partly
for
these reasons,debates
about
how
to
curup
rhe
social
world
between
public
and
private
are
rarely
innocent
analytical
exercises,since
they
often
carry
powerfulnormative
implications-but
quite
disparare
norma-
tive
implications,
depending
on
context
andperspective.
In
shorr,any
discus-
sion
of public
andprivate
should
begin byrecognizing,and
tryingto
clarify,
the multiple
and
ambiguouscharacter
of
its
subjectmatter.
To
bring
some
intelligible
order
into
thediscussion,
its complexity
needs
to
be
acknowledged,
and
the roots
of
this
complexiqF
need
to
be
elucidated.
This
essay
will
undertake
an
initial
venture
in
clarification
by
delineating
what
I
see
as
four
major
organi
zing
types
of
public/privatedistinction
that
operate
under
the
surface
of
current
discussion
(political
as
well
as
scholarly)
and
byattempting
to
elucidate
the
theoretical
imageriesandpresuppositions
that inform
them.
This
is
not
the
only
possible
or
usefulstarting
point
for
suchan
exarnination; and,
if
one
wishedtominimize
theconceptual
messiness
of
thediscussion,
good
cases
could
be made
forpursuing
either
a
rnore
sysrem-
aticallvhistorical
analysis
or
a
more
purely analyticalone.However,
I
think
 
Jerr
WEtNTRAUB
this
approach
has
advantages
for
helping
to
clarift
the
ways
that
people
cus-
,o*"ii[y
talk
pasr
each
6*1ss-and
confuse
themselves-on
these
issues
and
for
bringingon,
thepotentiallyusefulandproblematic
elements
in
each
of
fiese
perspectives.s
PuBLtc
AND
PntvATE:SoME
Bestc
OnlENTATloNs
'WpcAN
BEGrNBy
reminding
ourselves
that
any
notion
of"public"
or
"pri-
vare"
makes
sense
only
as
oneelement
in
a
paired
opposition-whether
the
conrrasrisbeing
used
as
ananalytical
device
to
address a
specificproblemorbeing
advanced
as
a
comprehensive
model
of
socialstructure.
To
understand
*h"i
either
"public"
or
"private"
means
within
a
givenframework,we
need
to know
with
what
it
is
beingcontrasted
(explicitlyor
implicitly)
andon
what
basis
the
contrastisbeingdrawn.
One
reason
thecriteriainvolved
are
irreducibly
heterogeneous
is
that,
at
the
deepesr
andmosrgeneral
level,
lyingbehind
the
different
forms of
public/privatedistinction
are
(atleast)
twofundamental,and
analytically
quite
dis-
,irr.r,
kinds
of
imagery
in
terms
of
which"private"
can
be
contrasted
with"public":
5.
It
is
worth
noting
another
fairly
recent
effort
along
these
lines,probablythe
mostsysrematicand
comprehensive
I
knowof.The
excellent
collection
edited
by
S.
I.
Benn
and
G.
F.
Gaus
on
Publicand
Priuate
in
Social
Ltft
(1983)is one
of
the
best
boolaon
this
topic
currenrly
available-and
one
of
thesurprisinglyfew
that
atternPt
to
elucidate
these
concepts
in
addition
to
using
them.
In
particular,
the
editors'
rwo
introductoryessays-
"Thepublic
and
the
PrivateiConceptsand
Action"
and
"TheLiberd
Conception
of
the
publicand
the
Priv21s"-addup
ro
a very useful
andintelligent
attemPt
to"map"
the
variouspermutarions
of
the
public/privatedistinctionand
to
analyze
their
conceptualun-derpinnings.
\fithout
entering
into
an
exrensive
comparison
berween
their
rypology andmine,
I
wouldlike
to
offernvobrief
remarks.
First, althoughtheyspecift the
analytical
elements
involved
in
moredetaitand
profusionthan
I
will
undertakehere,
in
the
end
the
range
of
concrereapproaches
to
the
public/privatedistinction
thatthey effectively
addressis
narrowerthan
those
withwhich
tlis
essay
will
deal.Second,
I
would
say
thattheir
analysis
is
weakened
bythe fact
that
,h.y
employrhecategory
of
"liberal"in
anunacceptablybroad and
unselec-
tive way,
so
rhat
it
graduallysubsumes
(and
homogenizes)
a
whole
spectrum
of
divergent
and
even
conficting
tendencies
in
\Testern
social
and
politicalthought.
In
fact,
in
their
discussion
"liberalism"
appears
to
be
more
or
less
equivalent
to
"moderttiry."
\flhen
"theliberal
conceprion
of
the
publicand the private"
istaken
to
include
Rousseau,
Hegel,
and
fuendt-all
engaged,
in
one way
or
another,
in
fundamental
critiques
ofliberali5m-*1gn
it
strikes
rne
,ft1
s6me
important
distinctions
are
being
blurred.
(People
who
have
had
occasion
to
read
both
rhis
essay
andthe
discussion
by
Benn
and
Gauscan
decide
whether
these
comments
seem
fair.)
Tnr
PueLrc/
PRIvATE
D
tsrlNcrtoN
1.
\ilhat
is
hiddenorwithdrawn
versus
what
is
open,
revealed,
or
accessible.
2.
tWhatis
individual,
or
pertains
only to
an
individual,
versus
what
is collec-
rive,
or
affects
the
interests
of
a
collectiviryof individuals.
Thisindividual/
collective
distinction
can,
by
extension,
take
the
formof
a
distinction
be-
tween
part
and
whole(of
some
social
collectiviry).6
\ilZe
might
refer
to
these
two
underlyingcriteria
as
"visibiliry"
(audibility
beingone
component)
and
"collectivity."
The two
may
blur into
each
other
in
specific
cases,
and
can
also
be
combined
in
variousways,
but
the
difference
in
principle
is
clear
enough.
\fhen
an
individual
is described
as
pursuing
his
or
her privateinterestratherthanthe
public
interest-or
a
group
isdescribed
as
pursuing
a"special
interest"
rather
than
the
public
interest-the
implica-
tion
is
not
necessarily
that
they
are
doing
it
in
secret.
Thecriterion
involved
is
the
secondone:
theprivate
is
the
particular.One
especially
pureapplication
ofthiscriterion
isperhaps
theway
in
which
economists
use
the term
"publicgood"
ro meanan
indivisible
collective
benefit-that
is, one
which
is essentially
collective;the question
of
"visibility"
is
irrelevant
here.
Likewise,
the
basis
forusing
the rerm
"public"to
describe
the
actions
and
agents
of
the
state(to
that
public/private
-
state/nonstate)
lies
in
the
state's
claim
to
beresponsible
for
the
general
interests
andaffairs
of
a
politically
organtzed
collectiviry
(ot,at
least,
the
srate's
abiliryto
monopolizethem)
as
opposed
to
"privats"-1hx1
is,
merely
particular-interests.
Treating
the
state
as
the
locus
ofthe
"public"ma!
becombined
with
arguments
for
the
openness
or
"publiciry"
of
state
actions;
but
it
has
been
at
least
equally
common
to
claim that,
in
order
to
advance
the public
interest,rulersmustmaintain"state
secrets"
and
have
re-
course
to
the
arcnna
imperii.
If
market
exchange
is
considered
a
"private"
acr-on
the
grounds
of
being,
in
principle,
self-interested,nongov€rnmental,
andunconcerned
with
collective
outcomes-then
it
does
not
cease
to
be
pri-
vare
when
it
is
carried
out
"in
public."And,
correspondingly,
voting
in
an
election
does
not
necessarily
cease
to
bea
"public"
act
if
it
is
carried
out
"in
private"by
secret
ballot.i
6.
I
was
reminded
of
this
refinement
by
Paul
Starr. Starr
makesuse
of
some
of
the
ideas
I
am
presentinghere
in
his
perceptive
essay
on
"The
Meaning
of
Privatization," in
theedited
volume
by
Sheila
B. Kamerman
and
AlfredJ.
Kah
n, Priuatization
and the Welfare
State(1989).
7.
It
is true
thatJohnStuart
Mill,
while
recognizing
the
force
of
arguments
in
favor
of
the
secret
ballot,
wasuneasy
about
it
because
it
might
encouragethe
voterto
think
of
his
or
her
yote
as
anexpression
ofpurely
"privx1s"-that
is,
individual-interest,
preference,
or
whim
(roughly
theway
it
is treated
by
most
social
scientific
voting
studies),
divorced
from
any
recognition of
civicresponsibiliry
or
concern
for"thepublic good"
that should
informparticipation
in
the
exercise
of
collective power
(see
chapter
10
of
Mill's
RepresentatiueGou-
ernment
[1861]).But,
or
theother
hand, akey
justification
for
the
secret
ballot
has
been

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