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essays

Sep 1, 1979

Private vs. Public: The Domain of Freedom

“What are the contrasting elements which constitute our conception of what is public and private?”

Herman Van Gunsteren

“Public and Private.” Social Research 46 (Summer 1979): 255–271.

Political observers have noted a curious similarity in the political positions of right- and left-wing radicals. In recent years, this convergence has even led to joint conferences between the two groups. A common hatred of political bureaucracy and a call for decentralization comprise two important elements of this new concensus.

A second issue also unites both new-left radicals and neoconservatives: i.e. where does a just society draw the line between the public and private sectors? They differ sharply, however, as to where each party would draw that line. Nonetheless, the distinction between public and privatepervades both ideologies. Prof. Van Gunsteren traces the roots and logic of the public/private dichotomy and next discusses the problematical nature of the modern corporation, an entity which defies classification in this traditional Western framework.

What are the contrasting elements which constitute our conception of what is public and private? Obviously, settings vary for each sphere, for example, homes vs. law courts. Activities take on different meanings depending on whether they occur in public or private settings. (It makes a big difference whether President Carter kisses Jacqueline Kennedy in public or alone in private.) Furthermore, the standards of the public sphere are objective (embodied in a constitution or corpus of law), and they allow for public access to all those considered members of the public. On the other hand, access to an area in the private sphere (a home or club) is under the subjective decision of the owner. In addition, each sphere utilizes differing forms of control over the actions of others: authority backed up by power and force in the public domain; self-interest, love, hate, and expertise in the private domain.

Throughout Western history, the distinction between public and private space has been essential to freedom and to the idea of the individual person. The existence of free individuals rests upon the act of self-awareness. Self-awareness occurs because human beings are able to view themselves from an excentric position. They can assume a “metastandpoint” from which they critically evaluate the relationship that exists between themselves and the environment. This objective metaspace belongs, by its very nature, to the private realm. Modern political thinking, thus, postulates the maintenance of the public/private boundary as basic to the possibility of freedom.

To many, this distinction has become, in its deepest sense, sacred. Violating it (doing private things in public) is viewed as a moral pollution. As a result, the separation between the two realms should not be tampered with lightly.

The modern corporation does seem to blur the distinction, which makes it an incompletely assimilated element in modern life. Defined as a legal person, enjoying many of the freedoms and protections intended for individual persons, the corporation also possesses enormous capital reserves and makes decisions which may deeply affect the structure of society and the lives of individuals.

Government cannot effectively control corporations, since business traditionally may not be forced to produce. Unpopular government measures merely result in reduced investment with, at times, seriously negative social consequences, such as a depression. What is more, no recourse exists against a private decision which produces widespread public repercussions.

Finally, the modern corporation possesses a force in both the private and public domains which few, if any, individuals can match. The status of the corporation, thus, makes a mockery of the “equality” of persons under the law, since few individuals can exert influence with their freedoms when such powerful competitors crowd the field.