Classifying Public Life

Three sectors of public lifeI sometimes think about public life in terms of three sectors:

  • Government
  • For-profit
  • Not-for-profit

Government makes the rules that everyone lives by. The for-profit sector provides most of the goods and services that we use. The not-for-profit sector fills in the gaps, especially when the other two sectors do not provide a complete and satisfying life for everyone.

Any one person may spend their entire life in only one sector, but collectively we need all three sectors. All three sectors are necessary and proper.

No sector is better or worse than the other two. Done well, each of the three sectors is noble. Almost every not-for-profit entity has a noble mission, and most of the people in that sector are altruistic and unselfish – as are most people in the other two sectors. Most people in all three sectors are good people, although there are a few selfish people and bad actors in all three sectors, about equally distributed as far as I can tell.

Some on the right may generally distrust government and believe that government is, at best, a necessary evil. Some on the left may generally distrust the for-profit sector and believe that it is, at best, a necessary evil. I do not hold either view.

We are a better people when living under an appropriate rule of law provided by government, as opposed to being a feral mob as in Lord of the Flies. We need government to provide rules for public interactions and prevent anarchy.

The for-profit sector also makes us a better people. The essence of the for-profit sector is serving others by providing something they want while using resources wisely enough to hopefully make a profit. That in itself is a nobility that is often insufficiently recognized, but there are further reasons to appreciate the for-profit sector. Most innovation occurs in the for-profit sector. And it is the for-profit sector that creates the wealth that supports both government and the not-for-profit sector and provides our high standard of living.

The three sectors must work together, but we do well to keep in mind their differences. I believe that confidence in our public institutions would be stronger if we keep these three sectors in mind, with their respective strengths and weaknesses, and adjust our expectations according.

It is also useful sometimes to think of public life in terms of just two sectors. The for-profit and not-for-profit sectors can be combined into “society.” Government remains as its own sector. The distinguishing factor between these two sectors is that the essence of government is that it is compulsory, while the essence of society is that it is voluntary.

Government and society have a yin and yang relationship with each other. They are complementary opposites. Neither is complete without the other. Together they create community and civilization.

This two-way classification of public life corresponds to the question in the header: What is a proper relationship between a free people (i.e., society) and their government? There is no final, definitive answer to that question, but it is a useful question for framing discussions about government and citizenship.

I will return to these classifications, both three-way and two-way, in future posts. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

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