TIME TO RETHINK: RECOGNIZE FOUR SECTORS, NOT TWO
So, how true is that two-sector public-private framework? It wasn’t true in the past. It’ll be even less true in the future. For it neglects that there are two other sectors — one very old, the other so new it’s barely recognizable so far. Not expanding the framework to include them will prove evermore pernicious for politics and policymaking.
The first sector to remember is embedded in civil society and is thus far older, more foundational, less formal, and harder to assign a name, partly because it represents more a cluster of sectors than a single sector: what is often termed the “civil sector” or “civil society sector” — our country’s original base sector of families, communities, and related associations; the sector that Alexis de Tocqueville lauded, without naming it, in Democracy in America (1835) as the source of America’s strength and uniqueness. Its actors and activities are defined primarily by kinship and similar associational dynamics, not market incentives. And its activist groups — e.g., nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), civil-society or community-service organizations (CSOs) — tend to be voluntary, non-profit, charitable, small, and service-oriented, by choice. Most strive to alleviate local health, education, welfare, and environmental problems, including via poverty- and disaster-relief. Thus, terms like “nonprofit sector,” “voluntary sector,” “independent sector,” “community sector,” and “social sector” are often applied. The term “third sector” was in vogue for a while as well.
By one name or another, this informal sector, or cluster of sectors, used to receive wide recognition and acclaim, notably for its actors’ abilities to supplement government and business initiatives at local levels. But not today. Now, whenever our political leaders can’t resolve an issue via the public and/or private sector, they may just toss it off to burden people in this community-oriented home-based sector, without acknowledging it as a crucial sector that deserves far better recognition, treatment, and involvement.
Myriad social philosophers, theorists, and other analysts have called for greater attention to family, community, and other civil-society matters, while also lamenting their neglect by government and business in recent decades. Currently prominent voices who lean Left include Gar Alperowitz, Amitai Etzioni, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Eric Liu, Roger Putnam, and Michael Sandel; and to the Right, Arthur Brooks, David Brooks, Rod Dreher, Yuval Levin, Charles Murray, and Roger Scruton. A recent entry is Raghuram Rajan’s new book The Third Pillar: How Markets and the State Leave the Community Behind (2019) — a telling title indeed.
But their luminous efforts to revive viewing society as a threefold combination of civil society, government, and a market economy have had no noticeable effects on the two-sector policy framework. It remains entrenched, particularly in Washington political circles. One explanation may be that the above efforts have not been cast in terms of sectors per se. They’ve rarely called for viewing civil society as embodying a sector (or set of sectors), and none has yet explicitly called for making that sector — whatever term they use — as much a part of the policymaking framework as are the public and private sectors. Nor have they called for recognizing the emergence of a next/new /fourth sector. Those calls have come from elsewhere (see the next section).
Meanwhile, rarely noticed, a separate new sector is slowly emerging — initially termed a “social sector” (Peter Drucker, 1994), later a “fourth sector” (Heerad Sabeti, 1998?), and lately a “commons sector” (David Bollier, 2008). Views differ as to what its name should be, whether its time is truly at hand, how distinct and separate it will be from the other three sectors, what imperatives and impulses will define it, which actors and activities will move (and be moved) into it, how to formalize it in practice, and where its funding will come from. Forecasting the formation of this next sector is still so unusual that, so far, only a smattering of theorists on the Left have done so, mostly treating it as a new kind of economic sector (erroneously, in my view). No one on the Right has noticed or warmed to the possibility, except for Drucker decades ago (and he fit more in the Center than on the Right). All of which I shall detail in the next section.
To preview my own sense, derived from an ongoing study of social evolution, this next sector will form around what have become the most critical and complicated matters our society faces, problems that have grown so serious that they cannot be resolved long-term by relying on the old public-private framework, nor even by adding the older civil sector back into it. And what matters are these? Specifically, education, health, welfare, the environment, and related insurance matters — a set of matters that, in aggregate, concern collective and individual care, broadly defined to include social, economic, cultural, and environmental care; in short, people care, life care.
For decades these matters were manageable enough to fit into the established public-private framework, and/or be left to individuals, families, communities, and related civil-society associations. This is no longer the case — these matters have grown too large, too complex, and too interrelated for standard solutions to work. America’s decades of progress have brought us to a turning-point for resolving care-centered matters. They have outgrown that two-sector framework in ways our politicians and policymakers don’t perceive yet.
In short, there are four cardinal sectors, not simply two. Our politics would benefit if our politicians and policymakers would return to recognizing the sector(s) associated with civil society — i.e., reinstitute a three-sector framework. Even better will be when they start to recognize that a new/next/fourth sector is emerging — auguring a four-sector framework for the decades ahead.
But doing so won’t be easy. Our politicians and policymakers, not to mention others, are deeply invested in and committed to the two-sector framework, for that’s where most of the power, privilege, and money reside. Furthermore, difficulties naming and defining the other two sectors pose big conceptual and practical problems, a source of chronic confusion and hesitation. Ways must be found to maneuver through that.