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May 07, 2003

public work in the private sector

When I spoke a few weeks ago at Berkeley, Philip Selznick made an interesting point about the value of commercial firms that are not profit-maximizers. As he noted, the genteel old publishing houses needed to cover their costs, and probably wanted to make a comfortable profit, but they were at least as committed to producing public goods in the form of high-quality literature. By contrast, a publicly traded firm must maximize profits, so if it generates public goods, they come as unintentional collateral benefits (at best). My friend Harry Boyte has promoted a whole philosophy of "public work," which prizes the ability of every citizen to generate public goods, often in collaboration with others. One hallmark of public work, it seems to me, is an intentional focus on public benefits. That is what is missing in profit-maximizing firms, but it's very evident in certain less economically efficient private enterprises. Boyte's schema is useful, in part, because it allows us to reshuffle the traditional categories of state/market/civil society. Public work can take place in any of these sectors, or it can be absent or suppressed in any of them. For example, if a state apparatus becomes heavily bureaucratic and rigid, then civil servants will stop performing public work. Likewise, if traditional publishing houses are bought by international conglomerates that relentlessly aim at efficiency, then their editors must cease to do public work. (Obviously, I owe an argument here about why public work is valuable. In brief, I think there are objective benefits to the community and subjective or psychological benefits to public workers.)

Posted by peterlevine at May 7, 2003 11:22 AM