Classifying Public Life: Discussion and Examples

In the previous post I discussed how I sometimes think about public life in terms of three sectors:

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

And sometimes in terms of two sectors:

  • Government
  • Society (= for-profit + not-for-profit)

In this post I further discuss my views on these sectors, with examples.

Consider three examples from recent posts on this blog about Cambridge, and how they fit into my three-way classification scheme:

Whenever we encounter (or create) an organized group or activity, we do well to think about which of the three sectors it falls into, and its relationship to the other two sectors.

My preference is to keep as much of public life as possible out of the government sector, and in the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors.

One reason relates to the question in the header: What is a proper relationship between a free people and their government? Consider my two-way classification of public life between government (which is compulsory) and society (which is voluntary). The more government, the more compulsion; and the less freedom for the people. If taken far enough, there will be no such thing anymore as a free people. Having “a free people” is important to me.

This reason for preferring limited government can be restated in terms of power. We all are wary of too much power in the hands of others. Certainly corporations in the for-profit sector can be powerful. Entities in the not-for-profit sector can also be powerful. But only government has the power to legally take from us by force our property and our liberty. We do well not to give government too much power.

A second reason for preferring limited government is as follows. Many ideas sound good initially, and may even be good at the outset, but as time goes on it becomes clear that they need to end. This is readily accomplished in the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors. In both sectors it is common for entities to cease to exist when they have outlived their usefulness. There is a name for this concept in the for-profit sector: creative destruction. But there is no comparable process in the government sector. Once a government program is created, it is difficult to end it even when doing so would benefit the greater good.

For both of the above reasons, it is wise to be cautious in creating government programs.

My only prior experience serving in government, before being elected to the Cambridge selectboard earlier this year, was when the governor appointed me to the Vermont Agricultural Development Board in 2010. (It became the Vermont Agricultural and Forest Products Development Board in 2012.) I remember once commenting to my fellow board members about “our role in government” and being surprised that some of them were surprised at the thought that they were serving in government. This is one way that government expands – when we aren’t paying attention to its boundaries.

Of course the VAFPDB was in the government sector. Granted, we were only advisory, but our opinions were (hopefully) being considered by people in the legislative and executive branches of government with the power and authority to enact government policies and programs. That was why the board was created. I resigned from the VAFPDB in 2013 in part because I felt that it was being asked to do things that in my view were better left to the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors.

Returning to the Cambridge examples listed above:

The management of cemeteries by cemetery associations falls in the not-for-profit sector. When there is no cemetery association, it falls to government to assume this responsibility and it is appropriate for a cemetery commission to exist as part of government.

The Villages Project is a type of mutual aid society as has existed throughout history and enriched society in countless ways. It is appropriately part of the not-for-profit sector.

The commuter bus is part of government because it is operated by a government entity (Green Mountain Transit) and mostly paid for by government (88%). As noted in the post about the commuter bus, the voters in Cambridge will have an opportunity at town meeting in March 2018 to decide if they want to continue this service.

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