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John Adams once wrote "Government is instituted for the common good; for the protection, safety, prosperity, and happiness of the people; and not for profit, honor, or private interest of any one man, family, or class of men..." Is the meaning of his words no longer applicable in today's society? George Orwell's infamous novel 1984 provides a clear example of what happens when the meanings of words are changed. But does Orwell's Newspeak example apply when we just change the context of words or make them conceptually less clear? For example, are there differences in definitions when a word is used in a political context vs. a social context? Take the term "rights" - some use it in a political context (liberty) and others use it in a social context (welfare). Has something similar happened with the terms private and public? When we confuse words, do we confuse reason? What context has changed in today's world whereby John Adams's words are no longer applicable?


It matters how we conceptualize political issues. The concepts we use in conscious thought and speech are cognitive tools that integrate a wide range of observations and prior conclusions, and are linked with related concepts into frameworks with which we interpret the world. The cognitive material we integrate in learning a concept, including the connections with related concepts, is largely implicit, below the level of conscious awareness, but it nevertheless affects the content of our concepts. When this implicit content changes, a concept can change its meaning...

In the United States and Europe, for example, the birth of the welfare state in the early 20th century was enabled, in part, by a change in the way people understood the concepts of freedom and rights. The classical liberals of the Enlightenment understood freedom as the absence of coercive interference in choosing one's actions. The classical rights to life, liberty, and property protected the individual against assaults on his life, constraints on his liberty, and the theft or expropriation of his property. In the course of the 19th century, however, intellectuals reconceived freedom as the ability to realize one's potential, which requires access to certain goods such as food, shelter, education, and insurance against disease. Because the concepts of freedom and rights are connected, this change in the understanding of freedom led these intellectuals to speak of rights to these goods - rights to have them supplied by society if one could not acquire them through his own efforts...

At root, the term "public" refers to the people of a society as a whole. On that basis, we distinguish between public and private along many dimensions of life in society, but all of them are variants of two basic distinctions.

The first is the distinction between the public sector and the private sector, i.e., between government - as an institution that has authority over all members of a society, and, in a democratic republic, is open to participation by all members - and the realm of voluntary association among particular individuals and groups...

The second public/private distinction is between those aspects of our lives that are open to the public in general and those we share "by invitation only..."

In Marx's fantasy of the pure communist society, there would be no government, and thus no public sector; yet in the social sense of "public," people's lives would be totally public, with no private life whatever. The same hostility to private affairs is expressed in the feminist claim that "the personal is political.

Most people in our society have not gone that far. But they have embraced a conception of government's role that is more expansive than that of the Founding Fathers, and one reason is the erosion of the clear distinction between the two concepts of what is public.

The Conceptual Preconditions of Freedom


Original posting by Braincrave Second Life staff on Jan 29, 2011 at http://www.braincrave.com/viewblog.php?id=451

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