As I previously noted, I’ve been bemused by the level of interest in prison privatization displayed by my students this semester. The subject of contracting out in general, however, is a staple of my Law and Policy course.
Use of the term “privatization” is a misnomer; the impression is that a service or task is no longer being provided by government. That is rarely if ever the case, at least in the U.S. The term typically refers to a decision by a government agency to contract with a nongovernmental business or organization to provide a government benefit. Government continues to use tax dollars to pay for that service or benefit, and remains responsible for its proper delivery.
Sometimes, contracting out makes a lot of sense. Sometimes it doesn’t. So our class discussions are not “should we or shouldn’t we;” instead, we consider when and how.
Unfortunately, in far too many venues, what should be a thoughtful consideration of relevant factors has become yet another ideological litmus test, with predictable consequences. An example:
When he was governor of Florida, Jeb Bush privatized veterans’ health benefits. It didn’t go well. As CNN reported
Bush’s experience outsourcing veterans’ nursing homes in Florida was a case study in privatization’s pitfalls. By the time it was over, Florida officials determined the state could provide higher-quality care at a better price for taxpayers.
Despite what should have been a sobering experience (click through for the details), Bush’s campaign continues to insist on the virtues of privatization, and claim it is “the remedy” for the problems experienced by the Veterans Administration.
I’ve picked on Bush, but there are hundreds of other examples, because we voters reward politicians who have bumper-sticker remedies for what ails us–politicians selling simple answers to complicated problems. (Are teenagers dropping out or getting pregnant? Put prayer back in schools! Is the economy underperforming? Cut taxes!) (Actually, “cut taxes” seems to be the one-size-fits-all solution for far too many politicians. Measles epidemic? Potholes? Crime wave? Whatever the problem, the reflexive answer is “Cut taxes!”)
The problem is, simple answers sell. We voters are far too ready to buy snake-oil, and far too reluctant to accept the reality that sometimes–not always, but often–the real answers begin with a recognition that “it’s complicated” and “it depends.”