What’s in a name?

So what does “res publica” mean, and why did I choose it for this site?

Perhaps the subtitle of the blog provides a clue: “reflections on politics, civil society, and the state.” What I was hoping to be able to do was to look into how we think about the role of government in our lives, the market, and about governance generally, with a view to sometimes unpacking political problems and issues by examining the embedded assumptions we all have as we approach political and social problems, and what we should do about them.

In my cursory understanding of Latin, “res publica” means, literally, “the public thing.” The concept is born of Roman civic tradition and practice, referring generally to the public sphere, or space. Bring governance into that space and we can begin to talk about “civitas,” what we might call today “the state.” In some definitions, “res publica” (or “respublica”–it makes little difference) actually means “republic,” “state,” or “commonwealth.” I prefer a broader conception: what I write about here is about the interactions and tensions that exist between civil society and the state.

If there were an opposite to “res publica,” it would have to be “res privata,” that which remains outside the public space because the public has no business being there. Or, at the very least, if the public has created or allowed a private space to be, essentially, private, that is the end of its involvement. Thus, for example, contract law establishes a private sphere and provides rules for settling disputes should they arise. Besides some common-sense regulation, the public sphere’s influence over that private space is not required and may in fact be be prohibited.

Private transactions may be commercial in nature, or they may not be. Take the case of sexual activity: when it struck down Bowers v. Hardwick in 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court basically ruled that laws prohibiting sodomy (read: gay sex) are unconstitutional because they violate private relationships between consenting adults that are otherwise protected. “Res privata” does not necessarily mean that, because it is private, there are no rules there: in this case, the relationship must be between mutually consenting adults (a combination of the ability of each party to be in the position to make such arrangements–they are not minors–plus the notion of mutual agreement–there is no coercion).

For the past several years I have been deeply concerned about a trend especially in the American political landscape, although there is evidence that we tend to “export” such ideas and practices through our foreign and especially development policy. This trend is the penetration of civil society into the state, in such a way that “res publica” is increasingly being treated as “res privata.” Let me explain.

I will admit my no-so-subtle, quite obviously Hegelian tendencies. Hegel saw civil society as the realm of “universal egoism.” It is that public space into which we enter after leaving the family. It is the place wherein we first begin to recognize one another as rights-bearers, equally entitled to recognition as free and independent people (we don’t get that in the family, as children). Civil society is the place where self-interest is the name of the game. As long as we play by the rules, i.e., that we respect one another’s autonomy and pursuit of their own interests, we are free to pursue our own. We might call this today “the market.”

Now, of course, Hegel’s civil society was that of early industrial capitalism–he wrote the Philosophy of Right in 1824. Today we tend to think of “civil society” as the broader, non-market public space, populated by civic groups, bowling leagues, churches, synagogues and mosques, charities, garden clubs, non-profits…you get the picture. A great many people like to think of civil society as populated by “the good,” people and institutions that are kind and charitible and want to make the world a better place.

Any such claim is obviously highly subjective. I think Hegel still applies here: civil society is filled with both individuals and groups who are pursuing their own self-interest. It does not matter if that interest involves making money or trying to promote some particular public policy. I may adore the Sierra Club and think it does good work, yet despise the Focus on the Family because I believe they promote bad public policy. Both organizations are within civil society, and are self-interested.

The institution where we come together and shed all of this self-interest is the state, whose interest is the universal interest, or what we might think of as, “the common good.” The only divider is citizenship itself; beyond that, we are all supposed to be equal: equally entitled to protection by the state’s authority; equal in the eyes of the law; equally able to have access to the state and its institutions, etc. And when the state makes its laws, it is supposed to do so for the common good, even though doing so may not be (and in some cases, never is) in anyone’s private, particular interest. As a citizen, I certainly want my taxes to be as low as possible…in fact, I don’t want to pay any taxes at all. But as a lawmaker, I realize that we need taxes to run things, so as a lawmaker, I abandon my self-interest for a greater good. If I am a good citizen, I understand the necessity of the state’s role in looking out not for me, but for a greater good.
I admit, it might be difficult to ascertain when a person is using his authority as an official of the state to use public policy to satisfy his own self-interest. Maybe that self-interest is held by many, and thus is more of a “universal” than it is a “particular.” We can debate these cases.

What I am really concerned about is the invasion of “res publica” by “res privata.” I am concerned that, in the United States today, it’s not just that people are trying to influence policy with money, trips to Scotland, or expensive dinners. It’s that the regulatory power of the state has eroded–by neglect and by design–such that there is little anyone can do to return “res publica” to the public. Recall the dot-com scandals of the early-2000s? Some people believed that it was simply the greed of a few that led to kind of corruption. This was the argument of the Bush administration: “a few bad apples” (like of like Abu Ghraib, right?) were to blame…they got greedy. Just punish them and forget about the wider environment.

In an excellent op-ed piece at the time, Benjamin Barber (the author of Jihad vs. McWorld) argued that those corporate scandals were not failures of capitalism (greed), but of democracy. The American people have been supporting political parties and candidates that have slowly been dismantling the regulatory apparatus of the state. They have made arguments that regulatations curb market “efficiency,” or that the state has “too much power over our private lives.” They liken taxation to theft, and want to turn over welfare services to “faith-based groups”–and then do not want those groups to be accountable.

The end-game to all of this: post-Katrina New Orleans. As I sat watching the FEMA disaster unfold (as it continues to do), all I could think of was how conservatives could really point to something and say, definitively: “Look at the failure of government!” They have dismantled it to the point that it no longer functions, and failes at every turn. What else to do than to continue to “starve the beast” until it is finally dead?

I have thrown a lot out there. These are some of the issues and problems that concern me. And the stories are everywhere. Perhaps I have romanticized some fictional past, where people had civic pride, and public officials truly did their work in the public interest. I don’t know for sure. What I do believe is that our res publica is in terrible disrepair.


~ by de cive on January 25, 2006.

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