Destroying communication, one word at a time

It makes me nuts to hear military contractors referred to as "private" contractors. If the Pentagon gives someone their orders and pays them, they can't be meaningfully considered private if that word is to communicate anything. Military induction or not, when you're an employee of the government, you're part of the public problem.

It's sloppy language like this that leads people to distrust the market entirely. When some parts of the free market--the voluntary part of society--leave it and start working for the government--the coercive part of society--it seems like there's little distinction. This is why self-described radical "capitalists" need to keep an ear out for self-described "anti-capitalists": they might really be on the same team after all.

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Not Exactly

Well, no, it does mean something, though it leaves an ambiguity, as you point out. There are four possibilities:

1. Public Demand, Public Provision (as in the traditional military)
2. Public Demand, Private Provision (as in the contractors)
3. Private Demand, Public Provision (the Post Office)
4. Private Demand, Private Provision (as in bookstores)

The ambiguity arises when we confound 4 with 1, or, for that matter, 2 with 3. However, as you can see, referring to military contractors as public would not be an improvement, because that may mean option 2 or option 3. There's no attempt at nuisance here--it's just the result of an imprecise language. You could introduce two new terms, or simply give the full pedigree of a service (both the demand and supply side of the equation) when referring to it. In the latter case, we could say contractors are a private provision satisfying a public demand.

This is an important distinction that is often glossed over.