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Jumping out of the Private-Public BoxJumping out of the Private-Public Box

Jumping out of the Private-Public Box

In a recent column, Andrew Coyne made the case that MP Michael Chong’s recent bill in Canadian federal parliament appropriately seeks to regulate the internal affairs of a political party. And I grant Coyne's point: political parties are by definition political, and therefore the appropriate object of legislation governing political matters.

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Topics: Religion, Civic Core, Institutions
Jumping out of the Private-Public Box December 11, 2013  |  By Ray Pennings
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"These are not church groups we are talking about. Political parties are not purely private organizations, of the kind who wish only to remain private, separate and apart from the public square. They are well-oiled machines for combat in the arena of public opinion, whose raison d'être is to win, and wield, power over the rest of us. That makes them quite different than any other private group."
- Andrew Coyne, National Post, December 6, 2013

Convenient rhetoric, yes. But you've just read an argument too inappropriately reductionist to be of much use in nuanced arguments about social institutions. 

In a recent column, Andrew Coyne made the case that MP Michael Chong’s recent bill in Canadian federal parliament appropriately seeks to regulate the internal affairs of a political party. And I grant Coyne's point: political parties are by definition political, and therefore the appropriate object of legislation governing political matters. He wants to maintain the distinction that they are a grouping that in a sense belongs to their members (hence they are private groups, although "quite different than any other"). There are things that happen in the Conservative Party that are none of the NDP's business (or anyone else's), and vice versa, but as Coyne argues, what happens in them all is legitimately all of our business because they are by their very nature political parties.

Yet Coyne then uses a sweeping contrast, highlighting church groups as a specific example of private organizations who "wish to remain private, separate, and apart from the public square."

Which church groups are we talking about? With a few exceptions, religious groups generally organize around a particular understanding of what they perceive to be moral truth and its consequent ethical obligations. Most are quite concerned (out of a sincere conviction for their neighbours' well-being) to share that with the public and to see the implications of that understanding reflected in public policy frameworks.

My point is not to engage in a church-state argument here; one could as easily swap in non-religious organizations to Coyne's contrast, be they community groups, labour unions, trade associations, or the Chamber of Commerce.

Rather, I suggest that there is both a public and a private dimension to the activities of every organization including a privately owned business, a church group, or a family. And government, often through regulation but sometimes through tax policy, makes these public dimensions of private organizations the focus of policy. So contrary to Coyne's suggestion that political parties are "quite different" from every other private group, political parties are in fact very similar.

That is not to invalidate his core point. There is a legitimate argument to be made about the legislature imposing rules regarding the selection of leaders on a political party, since the purpose of that party is to provide candidates to the public for choice in an election. To extend the same argument to another recent piece of legislation, it is not appropriate for the government to prescribe the public disclosure of all expenses of a union since the core purpose of a union is to represent their members in dealings with employers.

But Coyne muddles the meanings of "public" and "private." These terms have become nearly meaningless and sometimes confusing. Sometimes they refer to ownership—we all own and control public things while only some members or shareholders own private things. If that's the case, political parties are private as are all of the non-state institutions mentioned above.

Other times these terms refers to interests. A privately owned media company is commonly understood to have certain "public responsibilities."   Organizations that serve the public at large are expected to live up to certain standards of non-discrimination, even though that does not prevent them from giving a preferential rate to their members. 

This muddling, this overreliance on the public-private paradigm even when it does not fit, betrays a focus in our public dialogue that overemphasizes the role of the state and the individual and inadequately accounts for the important role that other organizations play in our shared life together. Chambers of commerce and soup kitchens and, yes, church groups operate on neither pole—they fill out the crucial middle in which flourishing is born.

We need a more nuanced language framework, because the common good requires a full range of institutions that cannot neatly be put into private and public boxes.

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