If there’s one thing that most conservatives and libertarians agree on, it’s about the gospel of privatization. Both groups agree that everyone is better off when governments contract with private companies to perform services.
If you look at the Reason Foundation’s website, you can find all about the glories of privatization and why it’s better than having government employees perform the work.
You’ll see praise of privatizing public works, garbage collection, lotteries and airport screening, among others. I’m sure the facts of the reports and studies are accurate as far as they go, but they’re missing the most basic point, as far as I’m concerned.
If I am forced by a city or state to fork over the money to pay for paving roads or collecting trash or maintaining public parks, how much does it matter to me whether the employees who do the work are government employees or on the payroll of a company that I’m required to support, whether I like the work or not?
I’ve been thinking about this because I’ve been noticing horribly incompetent companies I deal with lately. That’s made me wonder why I should prefer dealing with one of them — if I didn’t have any choice in the matter — rather than government employees. Why is an incompetent private company with a monopoly any better than an incompetent government?
We make fun of government bureaucracies for being overly based on absurd rules that make no sense. We make fun of their incompetence and we say that government needs to operate “more like a business.” But think about the incompetent businesses you probably deal with routinely. Think about the employees and managers who make you angry (and maybe make you feel crazy). Do you want your county driver’s license department to be like them?
The big issue with the people who do the work your tax money pays for isn’t whether their checks come from a government entity or a private company. The issue is whether you have a choice about paying for the service.
I got irritated at the way I was treated at Home Depot last week. I found some of the employees I dealt with to be incompetent and rude. I didn’t like it in the least. So I left and went to Lowe’s. I got what I needed there, but if I hadn’t liked something at Lowe’s, there were other choices. I wasn’t required to deal with any one of them. They had to compete — at least to some degree — for my business.
The garbage service where I live is operated by Waste Management on a contract with the city government. The city pays for the service and I pay for it through my taxes.
At times, there are things I’m unhappy with about the service. The plastic cans we’re provided break and they’re not replaced. The employees sometimes spill trash and don’t pick it up. There are other minor irritations. But I don’t have any real choice in the matter. I can’t take my business to another company. I’m stuck paying for what the city says I have to pay for.
Privatization might be a bit better than directly having government employees do the work. Maybe. I don’t know. What I do know is that a focus on privatization in this way misses the real point. The real point is choice. As long as I’m required to buy services whether I want them or not — garbage, libraries, streets, schools and parks, among other things — it doesn’t matter to me who runs them.
The free market is great, but it’s not a free market when government dictates who I’m doing business with. It’s a sideshow to worry about that kind of privatization. The real kind of privatization that matters is the kind that lets me decide what I want to spend my money on and who I want to do business with.