I’m a big fan of “connecting the dots.” Too often, We The People and the lawmakers we elect fail to recognize important connections; we treat issues in isolation, and often don’t understand why our “fixes” to those problems don’t work.
In all fairness, the connections are often obscure.
Recently, the Executive Director of In the Public Interest pointed out a connection that I had totally missed, even though I study both privatization and democratic processes. He warned that privatization is part of the ongoing assault on democracy.
“It couldn’t be clearer that the fundamental democratic right to have our voices — and votes — heard is under attack. Just this week, Wisconsin’s Republican-dominated legislature slashed early voting…in the middle of the night…during a lame duck session. Bottom line: there are politicians, conservative think tanks, and corporate funders who don’t want people to be able to vote. But we’ve learned through our work that there’s another — and perhaps deeper — threat to democracy spreading nationwide, and that is privatization. When corporations take control of public goods like water, transit, and schools, we give them the ability to make decisions that should be made democratically by us, the public.”
I often tell my students that the Bill of Rights, properly understood, is America’s answer to a foundational governance question: who gets to decide? Who decides what political opinion you hold, what prayer you say (or whether you pray at all), what book you read, how many children you have, who you are permitted to publicly love?
The Bill of Rights answers those and other questions by affirming the individual’s right to make those decisions for him/herself, by guaranteeing that we each have a significant measure of personal autonomy (otherwise known as self-government). Liberty, to the Founders, meant limiting the power of government to dictate what the Supreme Court has called the “intimate” decisions of its citizens.
Democratic theory is less prescriptive than the Bill of Rights, but it rests on the assumption that citizens’ assent to important aspects of their governance is a necessary element. Politicians and political scientists can and do disagree on just what those decisions are, about what decisions must be made by the citizens in order for a system to be considered democratic, but there is unanimity on the principle that “the people” must have the final say on the issues that are properly before them.
When government contracts out, it is authorizing a private entity to make decisions relevant to the contracted function. In many cases, that’s not a problem. (Leaving the decision about how much asphalt should be put in a pothole is hardly an assault on democracy.) When government turns over control of public goods like water, transit, and especially schools, that’s a different matter, and much more troubling.
Most of the considerable criticism of privatization has revolved around management issues, cost accounting, and occasionally corruption and “pay to play.” I’ve raised constitutional concerns as well.
I think we need to add the effect on democracy to the list. Have we turned over to private enterprise an area of decision-making that ought rightfully be democratically decided? What are those areas? And what are the dangers of contracting them away?
The answers will vary, but we need to ask the questions.