At the founding of the American Republic the word “private” had pejorative connotations. Derived from the Latin word “privare”, private meant to divide or tear apart. A private was called a privateer.
The word “public”, on the other hand, was an honorable adjective, often found in the phrase “public good”. In 1776 John Adams wrote, “There must be a positive passion for the public good, the public interest… and this public passion must be superior to all private passions.” Thomas Jefferson agreed, “I profess… that to be false pride which postpones the public good to any private or personal considerations.”
In the first 150 years of the new republic, in fits and starts, we expanded the public realm even as we also dramatically expanded private wealth. Individuals gained great wealth but ultimately the public good gained priority over private gain. The road system, at first privatized, became public. In the mid to late 1800s we established a nationwide, localized system of free public education. In the early 1900s we established a similar nationwide, neighborhood-based system of free public libraries. In cities the water and transit systems, at first private, became public.
In the 1930s we expanded the concept of a public good and a public asset to the idea of social insurance, enacting programs like unemployment insurance and social security and in the 1960s health care for the elderly through Medicare.
Today the public sector is under attack. Indeed our very language has changed. The “private” is glorified while the word “public” has become the pejorative, especially its current synonym, “government”.
The new era began with a new narrative when Ronald Reagan declared in his Inaugural Address, “Government is the problem”. Since then the verb form of the word private, “privatizing” has gained wide currency.
In the last few years the pace of privatization has quickened. In March 2009, for the first time in American history, private contractors outnumbered U.S. troops in a war (Afghanistan). Only 8 percent of the budget of the University of Virginia comes from taxes. The Wall Street Journal notes, “Cities and states across the nation are selling and leasing everything from airports to zoos…” Congress is trying to privatize the Post Office, Social Security and Medicare.
Today there is a wild imbalance between those who favor protecting public assets and those who do not, between those who believe the public should take priority over the private, and those who do not, between those who would emphasize the “we” over the “me” and those who would not.
This initiative is a response to this imbalance.