commonweal n.
  1. The public good or welfare.
  2. Archaic A commonwealth or republic.

This piece is just another observation about one of the principles of government that seems to have gotten lost in the last 30 years or so. That principle is the notion of public or common good as a legitimate, arguably necessary function of government.

 There are a few areas in today's political climate that conservatives believe are legitimate interests of the federal government: national security, broadly interpreted, being at the top of the list. A complete list of recognized federal functions, with a brief discussion of each, can be found here.

The two areas under the gun from conservatives are broadly, government provision of goods and services and social programs, who argue that many or most of these functions are not legitimate functions of government. ("Many" or "most" being based on how rabid the particular conservative is on a given day.) Instead, they argue, these functions are best left to the "free market" where individuals will have the "choice" to participate or not. 

Consider a few examples of moving government services to the private sector, and try to imagine how they might be privatized:

  • Schools! Ah yes, vouchers giving parents the "freedom" to choose their child's school. But consistent with the laissez faire philosophy, the private schools can charge whatever they wish, have no common academic standards or curricula, no minimum qualifications for teachers, and, of course, admissions based on anything, or nothing at all. That should work really well?
  • Airports! Clearly the more efficient private sector would just do a bang-up [ahem] job here. The airlines, could run the airports and the national airspace system keeping their eye first and foremost on safety the bottom line, just like they do now. Private planes? Don't bother us son, we got work to do. If you think the skies are less than friendly now, just let your mind wander a little.
  • Streets and highways! Yes, by all means. Charge everyone who takes a vehicle on a public road a per-mile fee. The technology is there. Consider EZ-Pass, NC Quick Pass and similar transponder-type systems. Imagine getting a bill every month for every mile you drive! Sure would beat those taxes now, wouldn't it? Considering the cost of highway construction, which varied from around $3 million/mile to upwards of $20 million per mile. How would the family budget fare with that sort of costing model?
  • Mass transit? Oh wait...what corporation it its right mind would undertake to build the Washngton DC Metro system, the "T" in Boston or San francisco's BART? Never mind. Hop in those cars, commuters, and await the monthly milage bill.
  • Water and sewers? Sure, why not. I've never had the privilege of living in a conservative heaven where my tap water is provided by a company, but I know many who have, and other than the color, taste, hardness, and frequent warnings to boil all drinking water, and of course the cost, which is perhaps five to ten times of our public water here, it works just great! Let's not discuss private sewage disposal. The hog industry in NC and elsewhere has shown that this can be done cheaply and with only minor "oopsies" like contaminating entire watersheds every couple of years, so no worries about private sewage disposal.

The next time someone gets up in front of you and delivers a fiery speach about all the fraud, waste and inefficiency in government, ask them to tell you what services have chronically failed in their missions and how, in detail, private industry might do it better. Here are some questions you might think about:

  • Why is it better to have 20-30% of receipts paid to shareholders and management rather than used to improve services or lower costs?
  • Public enterprises consider fulfillment of their missions, which are circumscribed by statute, as their priority. If their customers complain, the elected officials are quick to respond. When a customer complains to, say, an insurance company, what happens? Would this be a good way to run a school, a public utility or a highway system?
  • In providing their services, public institutions must comply with vigorous rules and regulations covering safety, environmental, compensation and fair labor practices. These are considered fundamental to their performance. Corporations have one focus: profit. Anything that gets in the way of profit is a barrier to be evaded, avoided, skirted, minimized to maximize profit. How would the product or service now provided by government change under private ownership, considering cost, impact on the environment and employee quality of life?

It is very difficult to recall any instance where privitazation of traditional government functions has worked out for the good of the served: the commonweal. Examples may exist, but there are not many of them, and none that I've heard about have their customers/clients/users cheering about the change. Think about that, and ask good questions the next time someone goes on a rant about taxes and "Big Government".