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Brigitte Unger, Loek Groot and Daan van der Linde

This introduction aims to provide a framework to address not only the normative question on what ought to be the character and business of government (or any other public authority), but also to positively evaluate shifts between private and public roles in recent history. Historical evaluations of the balance between market, state and society may serve as an alternative for models arguing that the ‘right’ configuration exists: why did current tasks evolve the way they did, and what can be learned from the past? Changes in technology or in the economic environment (such as the emergence of the European Union and globalization) can be held responsible for shifts in the optimal allocation between the public and private sphere, but there might also be a major shift of preferences regarding what should be public or private. Although it is hard to claim that the pendulum in the division between public and private, or market and government, has begun to reverse its swing, we feel it is important to give an account of the public sector in order to better understand what is at stake.