It’s all over the place. Public health, public safety, public affairs, public policy, public education, public works, public intellectuals, public service. On the principle of an inverse relation between the frequency of a usage and its power, we no longer give all these phrases much pause. We should, because something is going on here that is less than advantageous to our general welfare.

Consider a few examples. In this endless time of COVID plague, no phrase has asserted itself within our consciousness with quite as much urgency of “public health.” To it, however, medicine owes most of its progress through the first half of the twentieth century. Clean drinking water and sewer systems have done more than medical interventions to save lives and improve well being. Public health’s remit—the prevention of infectious disease in populations large or small, in contrast to the treatment of already sick individuals—was widely respected, but with the coming of the therapeutic antibiotic revolution after World War II, it lost some of its luster. Recently, mission creep has set in. In addition to its old purpose of “protecting and improving the health of people and their communities,” the science of public health also includes “promoting health care equity, quality and accessibility,” according to the CDC. This is not without hazard. The instinct of the keepers of public health to err on the side of overstating the extent of threats to our population’s health has been on full display in the current pandemic.

Or public safety. Shouts of “defund the police” lose some of their battle-cry quality when they become “defund public safety.” Yet this is where the language would lead us. In some of our most fashionable locales, police forces have for some time operated as police services formally housed in departments of public safety. In another variant of the tendency, what yesterday’s undergraduates referred to with a smirk as campus cops have become campus safety officers. Presumably this made policemen and women seem less threatening, kinder even. Parents once routinely taught the little ones that “the policeman is your friend,” by which they meant he was someone who could always be trusted and should always be treated with respect. “Public safety officer” somehow doesn’t summon quite the same aura. This might be because the shift from police department to public safety department appeared to tip the threat-balance away from transgressors of the law toward its enforcers. Moreover, things always got bigger under the public penumbra. If the old-time notion of police forces charged to protect private safety, as in the security of one’s property and person, was a good thing, then a more expansive public safety service that “reached out” to neighborhoods and communities, in addition to tending to criminals, must be even better.

Or public policy. There are now schools and departments in our universities dedicated to training ambitious altruists in the arts of government and administration. What public policy really means is government policy, which means government intervention. This was not always so. In the writing of Trollope, you may recall, there was much about government and those who had or sought a place in it, but there was remarkably little about policy. 

Or public affairs, the now universally accepted euphemism for public relations. Here things get inverted: the idea of public relations began in the private sector where it was deemed important to relate to constituencies outside the firm through means other than the market. Public relations never enjoyed a particularly high reputation, not too far above advertising. The phrase public affairs partly assuaged that, but jokes were inevitable. A high-up executive secretary (as such indispensable ladies once proudly styled themselves) in a large medical institution known to me and staffed with multiple vice-chancellors, as well as associate and assistant vice-chancellors, including several for public affairs, observed that there really ought to be a complementary suite of execs for private affairs, in which sector she enjoyed considerable insider information. It was in the world of journalism that the phrase “public affairs” achieved its apotheosis, with the programming formula “news and public affairs” as practiced by NPR and its acolytes. Long gone was the old-time news bulletin, with its deadpan recital of the day’s big happenings reported as facts. Public affairs meant big urgent issues about which you, listener or viewer, ought to be concerned and needed to be educated in the correct way. Such public affairs gave us that other glib usage: “in-depth.” Facts were shallow, interpretation deep.

Then there is the public intellectual who lurks around the edges of the public policy world, often enjoying academic domicile while writing and speaking to audiences beyond the understood one of academic colleagues. The line between the public intellectual and the self-appointed policy expert can be fuzzy and is easily crossed. Or public education, these days next to public health probably the “public” most on the public mind. The phrase dates only to the nineteenth century and the rise of tax-supported schools in big cities filling up with immigrants whose acculturation was understood as a necessary part of their education. Over the next two hundred years, it became a vast and vastly expensive behemoth in which “public” was a euphemism for state-controlled. Here “public” was thought favorably to draw the distinction with so-called private schools, which were in fact as open to all comers as were “public” schools but sustained without state support.

The example from education illustrates the blurred thinking that attends today’s plethora of publics. To simplify, “public” equals good, altruistic, and certainly inclusive. “Private” means, if not quite bad, then certainly selfish and exclusionary. The truth is that many children in America can attend private or independent schools if their families place high enough value on the education offered there, are prepared to make the sacrifices needed to pay the bill, and if the child makes it through the competition. But children can only attend public high schools in Greenwich or Winnetka if their family can afford to live in those jurisdictions, where real estate taxes can equal or surpass tuition in many private schools.

Leslie Ragan, New York Central System/For the Public Service, 1945. Photo: Swann Auction Galleries.

What is public and what is private, anyway? In the nineteenth century, when America had a miniscule federal government and when the only bureaucracies of note were the army and the post office, the country grew from agrarian republic to industrial giant, increasing in population, wealth, and living standards, as well as advancing, as the phrase now goes, the conditions of human flourishing. There is much to be said for simply getting on with such business. Simply living in a rich country confers wealth even if one literally is poor, if wealth is understood as a matter of prospects, not income. Try living in a poor country. As late as the mid-twentieth century, before the plethora of publics overtook us, this still seemed obvious. A victorious America then bestrode the world and at home was set to put its back into the business of peacetime prosperity. Leslie Ragan’s 1945 illustration for the New York Central Railroad captured the public/private understanding of that moment. It depicted a brace of locomotives, three steamers, and one sleek diesel, poised like thoroughbreds for departure from Chicago’s LaSalle Street Station, against an atmospheric backdrop of the Board of Trade. The caption: “For the Public Service.”

Two final publics. The phrase “public servant” has come to mean someone who works for the government, but should it? The phrase “public man,” now largely lost, said something else. Such men might be presidents of the country, or of the railroad, or they might be the less exalted but no less noble engineers and firemen peering out from Ragan’s great picture. One’s paymaster mattered less than how one carried oneself in the world each day. Or so it was, when, whether public or private, we were all in this together.

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