Elon Musk And The Public/Private Dilemma

Alexandra Petri recently had a gloriously snarky opinion piece in the Washington Post,comparing Elon Musk to her toddler. Titled “Things both my toddler and Elon Musk do that are signs of genius, apparently” it included things like “Constantly yelling at people to change things that cannot be changed” and “When presented with slow, patient explanations of why things are not possible, just screams louder;” and “Likes to seize nice things and ruin them because of a fundamental misunderstanding of what they are for.”

And of course, “Wants to be center of attention at all times.”

It’s disturbing enough when a man-child (“man-toddler?”) has enough money to buy and control what had been a significant mode of communication, but its terrifying to discover that this petulant child has the power to interfere in matters of global war and peace. As multiple media outlets have reported, Musk’s SpaceX refused to allow Ukraine to use its Starlink internet services to launch an attack on Russia last September–a decision that undoubtedly prolonged the conflict and benefitted Russia.

Musk has defended his decision as an effort to prevent possible nuclear war. Whatever your opinion of that excuse, or his action, the episode raises a profound question: should a single private citizen–even one less mercurial and self-aggrandizing than Musk– have the power to decide such questions? 

We live in a very weird time. Government evidently gets to decide what I do with my uterus, but not how the U.S. will assist in the defense of its allies….

I know this will come as a shock to several self-satisfied “captains of industry,” but having a lot of money does not necessarily translate into superior knowledge or nuanced understanding. Musk is actually a poster boy for that disconnect–as David French (who spent years as a First Amendment lawyer) recently wrote in the New York Times,

Despite his loud and frequent protestations, Elon Musk may be the worst ambassador for free speech in America. To understand why, it’s necessary to look at X, the website formerly known as Twitter, which he owns and rules over like the generalissimo of a banana republic….

Instead of creating a platform for free speech, Musk created a platform for Musk’s speech — or, more precisely, Musk’s power. First, he has demonstrated that he’s perfectly willing to take action against people or entities that challenge him or challenge X. As my friends at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (where I used to serve as president) have detailed, he has used his authority to suspend accounts, to throttle (or limit the traffic of) competitors and reportedly to boost his own voice.

As French quite accurately notes, rather than making Twitter (now X) into a free speech paradise, Musk has turned it into the generalissimo’s playpen, where the generalissimo’s values shape everything about the place.

X is Musk’s company, and he can set whatever speech rules he wishes. But do not be fooled. When Musk defends his decisions by shouting “free speech,” I’m reminded of the immortal words of Inigo Montoya in the movie “The Princess Bride”: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Musk isn’t promoting liberty; he’s using his power to privilege many of the worst voices in American life.

Power and privilege. Those two words are–or should be– at the heart of the public/private distinction. Once again, we come back to that fundamental question: what is government for? What functions are properly left to the private sector–to the individual, to the marketplace, or to the wide variety of nonprofit and voluntary organizations–and which must be exercised by a democratically-elected government? 

Right now, that essential inquiry is mired in a host of very serious concerns about the declining health of democratic decision-making, and the increasingly obvious effort of MAGA Republicans to turn America into an autocratic, White Christian Nationalist state. If they are successful, American government will no longer be legitimate under any definition of that term, and the allocation of power between those privileged by the regime and the rest of us will be moot.

If we do manage to salvage democratic governance–if voters come out in 2024 and deal a sufficiently robust defeat to the MAGA Confederates still fighting the Civil War–we will need to turn our attention to the necessary divisions between public and private power.

Governments can and do make grievous mistakes, but that is no reason to allow individuals–even individuals considerably more mature and informed than Elon Musk–to usurp decision-making in realms that must be subject to public accountability.


  1. I used to listen to WIBC when it was still an AM station and it broadcast the farm news at noon. The morning host were fun and entertaining. The afternoon helicopter traffic reports helped my commute. One day a guy named Rush Limbaugh came on. It only took a few minutes of listening to that aggrieved garbage to make me switch channels. Unfortunately that kind of garbage appealed to a lot of people and advertisers still paid to run ads.

    X never had any appeal for the same reason. You had to wade through too much garbage. Now advertiser are running away from the cesspool. Unfortunately there are still a lot of people that like to swim in the cesspool.

  2. I am not a fan of the name change or Elon Musk, but I do recognize the importance of social media. Without it, where would we hear independent media voices?

    This question from above: “Should a single private citizen–even one less mercurial and self-aggrandizing than Musk– have the power to decide such questions?”

    Starlink is a private company, and Musk is the owner. He can decide who can and cannot use his product. The better question is should private citizens own companies vital to military operations?

  3. The “outsourcing” to private industry has had a long negative effect on our society. Elon is but one rather horrific example – but I must remind everyone that this is also a person on the autism spectrum. His lack of social acumen, his quick temper, his inability to empathize combined with intellectual gifts that have provided him financial success and fame have allowed us to forget that he has real issues that are now more apparent as he has moved into more public avenues.

    There are consequences for thinking that successful business people can appropriately manage the division between commerce and government. Remember the outsourcing by Mitch Daniels of welfare benefits and the fiasco it caused? Need I mention the former President? When we push to reduce the size of government we also deal with the consequences of private sector pluses and minuses. We are disingenuous when we try to then blame a private citizen for having less than stellar judgment skills.

    I am not a fan of Elon, but we have allowed (actually encouraged) the conditions for this to happen. We need to look in the mirror on this one.

  4. The instant I saw Sheila’s blog title this morning I knew we were in for an adventure in political theory, one we should have been having even before Musk with capitalism’s near takeover of our government by the Crows, Kochs and other terminal capitalists. Apologists for capitalism such as Adam Smith using human nature as a rationale therefor fails to tell us whose human nature, such as the “human nature” of the Iroquois who had a socialist society that worked well but was incompatible with European invaders’ inherent greed-based “human nature.”

    Apparently Musk and the Crows and Kochs are of the same philosophical bent but Musk is the more arrogant of those who have enriched themselves with the labor of others with his X and other private ventures into the business of government. Musk seems to see himself as a rightly unelected dictator by reason of his wealth and brilliance, neither of which is compatible with democratic government.

    What we are seeing in his capitalism run amok should be ignored to the extent that we can but while letting him know what he can do with all his money and intervention into the exclusive business of governing by government, a government elected by the people.

  5. I need to do some research on the “private sector space vendors”. Do they sign a contract with any agency of government before being able to fill the stratosphere with their space junk? Are there any controls over the use of communications in the public airways, like that of the FCC? Are they allowed to use public venues like Canaveral or Edwards AFB? We know the danger they pose, what do we do about it now?

  6. Toddlerman has done very well for himself, in a Capitalistic sense, especially as he has some autism issues with which to deal. This may be why he can not wrap his mind around accepting that some of the things he wants are just not possible. That said, our system allows him, and the others in the billionaire class way too much leeway.
    “I know this will come as a shock to several self-satisfied “captains of industry,” but having a lot of money does not necessarily translate into superior knowledge or nuanced understanding.” Or, simply being a good human being, caring about one’s impact on one’s fellow humans.
    Queeg was a captain, not a leader.

  7. So government should dictate to private citizens what to do with their property? Obviously Elon is not a member of the MIC. It’s interesting how Democrats are willing to sacrifice their rights in support of the NAZIS of Ukraine.

    Good for him. In the not so distant future Democrats will be accusing everyone not in support of Ukraine as being communists and traitors. How authoritarian. It looks as though there is a lobby that hates Russia for beating the nazis. And that lobby has become a very Important source of donors for the DNC.

    Slava Maui !

  8. I guess Democrats no longer believe there should be a balancing distance between government and business. What’s the definition of corporatism again?

    Slava Maui!

  9. Eileen; in 2017 the Indiana Public Retirement System (INPRS) outsourced our Public Employee Retirement Fund (PERF) to State Street Bank Retiree Services to disburse our monthly checks. When I complained about the “privatizing” I received a response that they had not “privatized” the account, they had simply changed from the company they had been using for three years. We had not been notified of that outsourcing from the PERF disbursement and we were required to reregister with State Street Bank Retiree Services IF we wished to continue receiving our retirement funds which we had paid into for years. The Indiana Republican Senate in 2021 (and 2022 and 2023) refused to allow INPRS to continue our receiving the annual 13th Check rather than a yearly COLA and notified us we would begin receiving a 1% COLA in 2022, there was NO COLA increase this year. This change lowered our overall annual retirement income.

    This is the work of Republicans in this Republican state which probably means the majority of PERF retirees are Republicans. A Public/Private Republican Dilemma which lowers retirement income to elderly and disabled public retirees which includes Public Employees, Teachers, Judges, Police Officers, Firefighters, Excise Gaming & Conservation Officers, Prosecutors and Legislators. The last count I saw earlier this year was approximately 94,000 of us being deprived of the return of our income from years of employment in the state of Indiana. We were NOT given a choice of paying into PERF; those on Elon Musk’s X social media are there by choice and if dissatisfied they can end their contact.

  10. Nazi, Nazi, Nazi – I see the troll is out again. Sorry, broke my rule of not feeding them.

    Now for the real comment.

    I don’t often agree completely with Todd, but he hit the nail on the head.

    Private businesses can do as they please with their private property, but interfering with US foreign policy is like dumping toxic waste into public waterways.

    We have to undo over a century of propaganda that private enterprise/property is sacrosanct, enshrined in the Constitution and the Sermon on the Mount and that big business is always efficient while government is always wasteful.

    Private business is rarely more efficient than government. Size breeds inefficiency more the whether it is private or not. Areas of public interest are best controlled in the public interest and not the profit motive. Outsourcing usually costs the government more money and puts the government at the mercy of those whose interests may not coincide with that of the public.

    Of course, neither do the MAGA Republicans and they seem to totally own the House.

  11. Todd, Your “Independent Voices” are most likely unvetted, or unverified, or Russian, or Chinese agents, or people influenced by them. As we have pointed out before, when the barriers to being a published “Independent Voice” is the cost of an email address, the information published is often worth what it cost to publish it, nothing.

  12. Troll? Zelenskyy recently visited Canada begging for money again and who did he bring with him? Yaroslav Hunka. Trudeau and Canada’s parliament gave Hunka ( a known nazi) a standing ovation. Why has the political class of North America aligned itself with nazis?

    That is fact.

  13. Ya know, I’ve been terribly naive. When Adolph Heusinger (Hitler’s Chief of Staff) became NATO’s Chief of Staff,it all makes sense today.

    The epithet of AsianMongols from yesterday are the deplorables of today. Giving away billions to Ukraine in order to further a centuries old ethnic hatred.

    Just follow the tea leaves.

    Slava Maui!

  14. Oh, feeding the trolls! I apologize in advance: Ian, or whatever your actual name is…you failed to reach your goal – we non-trolling humans work constantly to get our facts straight. Now would be an opportune time for you to undertake similar, and rigorous work. Otherwise, button your lip, please!

    Specifically – Zelensky did NOT bring Hunka to Canada – Assuming that he did is NOT a fact – your sources seem to be trolling you. Hunka, a Canadian resident since WWII, was invited to visit Canadian Parliament by its Speaker. People who applauded him were gobsmacked to learn his true WWII history. Canadian Parliament seems to operate under a trust policy about members’ guests – who apparently have been routinely accepted as deserving by fellow members. The Speaker resigned in light of his untrustworthy invitation and orchestration of honor for Hunka. Hunka seems to have snuck into Canada somehow and now may be investigated and dealt with due to his unearned status in the country – we’ll see. And, we’ll see if there are changes in guests to Parliament policies. Appologies everywhere are heart felt, but perhaps not sufficient. Again, we’ll see.

    These things I learned by reading and listening to various news sources – I apologize if I have made mistakes in the above.

    «Ian,» your vituperative inaccurate pronouncements speak loudly to your unreliableness. Perhaps asking you to grow up, already, is of no use. Oh well…

    [To others on this blog – I apologize to you all for my own very unfriendly remarks today – I feel better, sort of – a clear indication why feeding trolls ought to be a non-starter.]

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