Here is yet another example of how advocates of individual rights and free markets must fight both “liberals” and “conservatives.”
Diane Carman writes for the October 16 Denver Post:
For conservatives, the belief that private industry does everything better and at less cost than the evil government is the sacred 11th commandment of politics.
And, the debacle with Blackwater USA notwithstanding, there’s no question that some jobs are done best by private contractors.
On that everyone can agree.
Trouble is, a whole back-slapping system of financial rewards has evolved to corrupt the process. …
Here in Colorado, private firms supply everything, even bus drivers and prisons. Former Gov. Bill Owens was a believer in the 11th commandment, so contracts for public services during his terms exploded.
One result was a $300 million computer system that never worked, Carman notes.
In Carman’s world, then, you can either work directly for the government or indirectly for the government. If you work indirectly for the government, then that’s “private” enterprise.
What’s missing from this picture? Hmm… I know it’s a toughie! How about the possibility of not working for the government at all?
Let’s take the example of bus drivers. Is it true that bus drivers either have to work for the government directly or work for companies that contract with the government? Obviously not. The alternative is to get government out of the business of running busses and allow bussing companies to operate independently, with the ability to set their own rates and routes and compete on a free market.
Carman actually knows that it’s possible not to work for the government — after all, she works for The Denver Post — yet she packages government contracting together with real free enterprise as “private.” But a company that’s paid by the government — i.e., by tax dollars taken forcibly from citizens — is not really “private” at all. A truly private enterprise earns its revenues from willing customers.
I’ll take another example to drive home the point. Currently, book publishers decide which books to publish and then sell the books to readers who buy them. That’s private enterprise. But what if the government published books? (In fact, the government publishes government reports already.) If the government pays a contractor to print and distribute books, is that “private” in the same sense? To take an extreme example, if the government taxed everyone at a rate of 100 percent, then hired contractors for every job, then, by Carman’s reasoning, that would be an entirely “private” economy.
So it is rather important to maintain the distinction between a real free market — actual private enterprise — and government contracting, which relies on the forcible transfer of wealth.
Is there a legitimate role for government contracting? Yes — but only for tasks essential for the government to fulfill its job of protecting individual rights (which need not involve coercive taxation). For example, the government may properly hire contractors to build military equipment. However, when it comes to prisons, I think employees should work directly for the government, not for contractors, because of the perverse incentives created by indirect financing.
Carman makes another crucial mistake. She presumes that one must hold one of two views: either the government should finance bus drivers and all sorts of other occupations, or the government is “evil.” What this leaves out is the view that government plays a crucial and essential role in protecting individual rights, but that government should be restricted to that role. The fact that government is not evil does not imply that government should restrict, compete with, or push out (actually) private enterprise.
Unfortunately, Carman draws her errors directly from the conservative movement. Conservatives often fail to distinguish between the proper and essential role of government and the misuse of governmental power. Conservatives usually endorse the forcible transfer of wealth, though for “conservative” aims. Conservatives also pretend that government contracting means the same thing as “private” enterprise.
Here’s a recent example. A Colorado Republican release from October 16 states:
Leadership and members of House and Senate Republican caucuses gathered on the west steps of the Capitol today to unveil a comprehensive education package…
Among the GOP proposals addressing those priorities: a uniform, statewide curriculum standard to graduate high school; a general proficiency exam before any student could graduate; a requirement to display English proficiency before a student could graduate, and a plan to reward and retain the best teachers through performance bonuses. …
Assistant Senate Republican Leader Nancy Spence… the ranking GOP member of the Senate Education Committee, showcased two of her education-reform bills at the conference. One of the bills would offer parents tuition assistance for special-needs children, and the other offered performance incentives to teachers.
She said that students with special needs are particularly vulnerable when their educational options are limited and that their parents ought to be able to choose a program, private or public, that addresses the unique challenges their children face.
There’s that word “private” again, this time used by Republicans to mean government-financed schools for “students with special needs.”
But what does a real “private” or free-market school look like? It does not accept any tax dollars. It earns its revenues from willing customers. It sets rates of tuition, perhaps including sliding scales to accommodate the poor, in cooperation with its customers. It might accept charitable donations or even (actually) private vouchers, meaning vouchers funded voluntarily, rather than through tax dollars.
But, with a few rare and quiet exceptions, conservatives will not endorse free markets in education. Government-run education is conservative orthodoxy. True, some conservatives want the government to control education via tax-funded vouchers, and they pretend that this is the same thing as “private” education, but this is merely a minor variation on the theme of government force.
Indeed, Colorado Republicans have proudly assumed the role of central planners. They want to micromanage every government-run school in the state. And why do government-run schools require such micromanagement? Because of the perverse incentives created by tax financing. Government-run schools face little incentive to serve their “customers.” These Republicans have no problem with government-run schools; they just want the government to run the schools their way.
Here is another example. This evening, the El Pomar Foundation is hosting a talk with Thomas Krannawitter of Hillsdale College. Here’s what Krannawitter has to say about government-run education:
In Ohio, as in the rest of America, taxpayers for years have poured billions of dollars into failing public schools. Dissatisfied with dismal results, the citizens of Cleveland decided to try something different. Parents would be given a voucher — tax dollars, that is — they could use to send their children to any school of their choice, public or private. By making choice available to more parents, schools would compete to attract students, providing a powerful incentive for all schools to strive for educational excellence. …
Contrary to the ACLU, the men who framed and ratified the Constitution and Bill of Rights rightly believed political freedom and good government require moral citizens capable of governing themselves. And they thought religion a powerful means of moral education that ought to be promoted by government.
Krannawitter confuses government-financed schools with “private” schools, thereby helping to obliterate the very idea of an actually “private,” free-market school. He enthusiastically endorses tax-financed education. And he suggests that government should also spend tax dollars to promote religion.
The broader critique is that Krannawitter conflates religion and morality, when actually objective morality can only be derived independently of religion. Religion undermines morality. But that debate is too broad for this post. For now, I need merely point out that Krannawitter does not advocate the right to control one’s own resources with respect to education or even religion; he believes the government should be in control.
The modern contest between “liberals” and “conservatives” is merely one to seize government control over our lives.