In my last blog, I wrote about how confounded I am by the current antigovernment sentiment we are hearing everywhere. Moved to action, I did what all good academics do – I fired off a letter to the editor of our local paper! It was a shortened version of my last blog.
In the online discussion following, a number of people wrote in agreement, and quite a few more wrote in obvious disagreement, though not in any way that would leave me less perplexed about the original sentiment. But there was one thoughtful fellow. While acknowledging the point I had made about the value of government services, his position was that in the best of all possible worlds, all but a very limited few government services would be “privatized,” that is, carried out by private companies rather than by government workers. “My position is that high government employment itself represents a big inefficiency in any economy.”
That is a view I at least had heard before, back in my youthful days when I flirted with “Christian anarchy” as a viable political philosophy. But experience over the last 30 years has mostly raised only counter-arguments in my mind. But at least this is a view I can get my head around, even though I think it should subjected to more demand for evidence than I have seen to date.
Here is what I think. Any well-functioning modern society has “commons” work that needs to be done-basic social welfare, education, public health and sanitation, public land maintenance, park and recreation facility maintenance, protective services (emergency, fire, police), infrastructure building and maintenance, basic research, judicial affairs and such. There also needs to be adequate administration to oversee and regulate these. It is not at all clear to me that private employers, contracted by government for the purpose and driven by the motive to maximize their business profits, can or will do these types of “commons” work any cheaper, better, or more efficiently, than public employees. This has never been adequately demonstrated, and there are all sorts of common sense reasons to doubt it.
Of course there are stories of bad public employees, people who use their position to maximize personal gains at the expense of those they are there to serve. But there are at least as many stories of bad private employers and employees. It is the very fact that there is no great profit to be had that makes these areas of “commons” work in the first place. Once we recognize that, it becomes wrong-headed to think that subjecting this work to “market forces” will get it done any more cheaply or efficiently. If the fact that we have people employed by the commonwealth to do works of the common good represents, ipso facto, inefficiency in the economy, this indicates a problem in how we have been defining the economy in the first place. It is not a view of the economy that is up to the task of facilitating civilized living in a well-functioning modern society.
Why do we persist in defining our economic life as one big thunderdome of survival of the fittest (i.e., those who can squeeze out the most personal gain for the least input of resources.) It seems to me that pride of accomplishment and commitment to serving the common good (what we once hailed as civic-mindedness and recognized in our public service workers) could be even better motivational sources for economic life than maximum profits. The private sector hardly recognizes that it is actually dependent on a good public sector for its own success. A strong public sector ethos, in which we are taught to appreciate public sector work and respect public sector employees, would be a much better economic foundation for a good society than this current private sector fetish we have now.