In our exaltation of the private, are we in danger of forgetting the interplay of the public?

Photo by Ingo Joseph on

Take out your troubled
photocopies and burn

the Pilgrim’s kiss. There’s only
one story. It always ends.

Ada Limon, Publicity

The public is community

When we describe something as public, it is a reminder that we live in community. Things that are public are of or for the community as a whole. This list includes public interest, public rights and most relevant at present, public health.

Working as a community comes with enormous benefits, humans didn’t dominate this planet because of their physical aptitudes. If anything, our success is much more about our social successes in producing food at scale, sharing learning and knowledge, adapting and innovating and creating social systems in which we don’t kill each other at least most of the time. The fact that our life is not ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’, to borrow Hobbes’ phrase, is much to do with our shared connection in community. Our ability to conceive and manage the public domain is our advantage.

We haven’t got this right everywhere in the planet in every age. Mostly, we have got it murderously wrong to the benefit of a few and, for embarrassingly long periods, to the detriment of millions. However, at its broadest sweep we can argue that public administration follows Martin Luther King Jr’s dictum that

the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice

Martin Luther King Jr.

That arc doesn’t bend itself. There’s no natural order or divine hand at work in bending towards justice. People took the public interest to heart and campaigned for change for thousands of years in big ways and small. Each contributing a little change, some even temporary, and yet each contributing a lot to our public knowledge of what we need to do and how we can improve.

Private Within Public

All the private rights and freedoms we enjoy exist within the public realm of our chosen communities. Those rights and freedoms aren’t independent of the public realm. They depend on it for recognition, protection and support. The rights and freedoms have been won by battles over public institutions and structures that enable the exercise of private freedoms. That public realm is also where the consequences of many freedoms play out.

Recognising this interderpendence isn’t curtailing freedom, but rather better understanding how the complexity of interdependence is to be expressed and what institutions and structures we need as a community moving forward. As others have expressed more eloquently, your ‘freedom to’ can impact another’s ‘freedom from’. Debates over the appropriate balance of these elements has occupied political philosophers for centuries and formed the foundation and ongoing evolution of most global political systems. This is not a new problem. What is clear is that absolutism, extremism and denial are not answers. The path forward is not a toddler’s insistence on personal autonomy. Nobody is an island. It is an open debate about the appropriate levels of interdependence in a society to the benefit of all.

What is unique about our current circumstances is that the tradeoffs between private and public have been brought closer in to the every day. Mostly, the public is off doing its thing over there and we get on with our private lives unaware. The challenges we are facing in a global pandemic, global warming, racism, sexism, and so on mean that there is ever more pressure for consideration of the public in private actions on a daily and hourly basis. That brings the inconvenience of being part of a wider public into stark relief for some. For the vast majority of people, this is a non-issue. People have willingly changed behaviour in the interests of the wider community. They know that they live and benefit from that community and its protections. A call to serve the public interest has been widely embraced in lots of small, simple, low risk ways – keep distance, wear a mask, vaccinate, reuse, recycle, reduce, changing to inclusive and respectful language, and so on.

The darkness
of daily wanderings resumed, the day’s sweet darkness,
the darkness of the voice that counts and measures,
remembers and forgets.

Adam Zagjewski, Balance

This behaviour in the public interest is critical because it is important to recognise whatever your political affiliation, your stance on vaccines or global warming that as a community we share some currently limited public resources – healthcare, education, an environment, etc. Most directly, in our current circumstances, our ambulance and intensive care hospital services are constrained. Even if we could as a society, or a market, choose to build more beds, we are at the limits of our trained healthcare professionals, in number and also the physical and emotional limits of 18 months of work in crisis conditions. Allocating all this precious capability to saving the lives of an influx of covid patients means that others will miss out on the care that is their private right. Defining a new hierarchy of freedoms doesn’t end the conflicts or the consequences, it just shifts them around. The outcome is usually that the consequences fall on those least involved in the debate, the most vulnerable.

Most people understand that their private enjoyment depends on recognition of a wider community. Rather than focus solely on the private risks and rights, we need to continue the conversations about the interdependencies and the public benefits. Without the shared realm of the public, the private benefits we seek would become largely meaningless.

Say something. I’m here, waiting, scrolling the radio.

On every frequency, someone hushes me. Is it you?
Twentieth Century, are you there? I thought you were

a simpler time. I thought we’d live on a mountain
together, drinking melted snow, carving hawk totems

from downed pines. We’d never come back. Twentieth
Century, I was in so deep, I couldn’t see an end to you.

Maggie Smith, Twentieth Century

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