Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Danger of Applying Private-Sector Efficiency Standards to Government

            Evgeny Morozov’s recent book, To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism ( is mostly about the Internet, but has a couple of points of value to the topic of this blog. There’s a similarity between economism and the view Morozov calls “Internet-centrism,” which he defines as a nearly religious worship of “the Internet” (as if the Internet is one thing), and an assumption that “the Internet” somehow embodies divine truth and natural law, so that instead of changing any feature of the Internet we find to be harming society, society has no choice but to get with the program and change its ways to coincide with “the Internet.” (Sound familiar?)
            One good point Morozov makes has to do with the relationship between private-sector standards of efficiency and government programs. It’s commonplace today, of course, to badmouth anything pertaining to government; but it’s especially common to look at the private sector, see what sorts of efficiencies are possible there, and then beat up government because its programs don’t demonstrate that same level of efficiency. And to most of us in America, any such argument makes perfect sense and needs no support or explanation. It’s just self-evident that if it wasn’t for government incompetence or corruption, anything in government would work just as efficiently as anything dine in the private sector. Just one more argument for turning all government programs over to private enterprise.
            But Morozov reminds us, “Most public institutions should not be held to the same standards as their private counterparts simply because their mission is to provide goods and services that markets cannot or should not provide.” We might grumble about the post office all we want, but the fact remains that no for-profit firm is about to deliver letters, in a few days, to any address in the country, and do so for a price that almost everyone in the country can afford, with a near-100 percent chance to the letter getting to where it’s supposed to go.
            Champions of economism, however, love to take advantage of our sloppy thinking on this point, as we then use the lack of ideal efficiency as further reasons to distrust government. Morozov quotes Catherine Needham: “The fundamental danger is that consumerism may foster privatized and resentful citizens whose expectations for government can never be met, and cannot develop the concern for the public good that must be the foundation of democratic engagement and support for public services.” And he adds, with a further quotation from Matthew Flinders, that “treating citizens as consumers leads them to think that politics can deliver the same ‘standards of service that they would commonly expect from the private sector…[which] is the political equivalent of suicide.’”
            If average citizens get disgusted with government because it fails to come up to some impossible standard of efficiency, they’ll ignore politics, which is just what economism-boosters want, so that the lobbyists and technocrats can take over and run government in the way that favors the corporate world. Anyone who visited Great Britain during the early years of the Margaret Thatcher regime saw this program in action—the Thatcher recipe was to cut funding for Britain’s public services, so that they’d deliver poorer and poorer performance for the average citizen, to get them demanding change, and therefore allow Thatcher to announce that the only solution to the problem was to privatize all these programs.
            It’s hardly popular today to try to re-educate all of us to realize that private-sector standards of efficiency might not be the right way to judge government programs that serve needs that the private sector doesn’t want to touch (except maybe to cherry-pick the few parts that turn a nice profit, and let all the rest go to seed). But then, it’s not popular to try to educate people about the illogic and flaws of economism generally.

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