Here’s a new paper of mine, Public-Private Drift, examining the growing proclivity to blend public law and private law in order to mold behavior and coerce it into certain ideological grooves. The paper explores the phenomenon in a variety of contexts today. Here is the abstract:
The public law/private law divide is back. Scholars with a broad range of theoretical commitments are attempting to rediscover or reestablish the division. This paper approaches the public-private law problem by describing what it calls “drift.” Drift is the tendency of what is thought traditionally to be private law to become public (public drift), and the tendency of what is thought traditionally to be public law to become private (private drift). Though it is possible to distinguish public and private drift conceptually, drift is in practice a unified phenomenon: public and private drift go together. Drift is manifested not only in formal, legal developments, but also in the informal processes by which public law frameworks now influence private ordering, private rulemaking, and private relationships, as well as the way private authorities have been entrusted with the responsibility to implement those public law frameworks.
This paper’s perspective on the public-private debate is explanatory. It accepts that many people perceive or believe American law to be in some sense divided into public and private domains, without endorsing that perception or belief. It does so in order better to describe the coming of drift. Even if one were skeptical about the conceptual purity of public and private law, one might nevertheless believe that what is public and private is a question of more and less, of greater and lesser degrees, and that there can be periods of relative stability in these categories and relative disruption. The paper describes various contemporary examples of drift, explains drift’s comparative ascendancy today, and speculates about possible future developments for drift.
The upshot is that drift in public and private law may not be driven primarily by anything innate or conceptually necessary in the disciplines believed to constitute private or public law. Drift is instead a political byproduct, the issue of social and cultural anxieties concerning the absence of anything like a common political project. The paper deliberately selects examples of drift that exhibit what would be conventionally described as conservative and progressive valences (in the meteoric rise of public nuisance, in the strategy of statutes like Texas’ S.B. 8, in the mixed public-private response to COVID-19, in the controversies about social media speech control, and others) to illustrate the universality of the phenomenon. Drift is a response to a perceived political void or emptiness in which public-private partnerships of powerful actors emerge to fill the void, capture the institutions of power, and coerce people’s behavior into certain ideological grooves. Drift is, in sum, a reaction to social fragmentation that ironically and unhappily exacerbates the pathologies that provoke it in the first place.