The Edifice Shudders, the Center Cannot Hold

Thursday, January 18, 2018 - 17:30

A plague has settled upon the land. It’s the lightly tossed about trope in political discourse that privatization of government services like health care makes sense in the name of efficiency. In the United Kingdom, witness a gradual, legislatively enacted shift taking place in the National Health Service, for decades the pride of social care programs. Witness it here in the United States with loose political talk — a seasonal silly product of vote-sniffing political polarizers — about privatizing Medicare, the health care lifeline of our elders that, simply put, works as a matter of both practice and public policy.

The move to shrink government has been a nefarious political project of the last several decades — small enough, as conservative gadfly Grover Norquist famously said, “where I can … drown it in the bathtub” — effectively driving into the ditch any widespread belief that government institutions have value on the fundamentally human plane. Particularly lost in this rhetoric is the nuance that governing well through sound institutions in the presence of a confident citizenry has a leveling effect in society. Instead, the effect of endless repetition has been to polarize our political values and create gigantic distance between rich and poor, a flattening of middle class earnings growth over an entire generation, and a Congress in pitched battle with itself, neutered and unable to redress the imbalance.

Contrary to popular belief, however, a robust nonprofit sector cannot step in and fill this deepening void. The sector is too dispersed, too disparate, too localized — and without sufficient policy or economic power — to have wide-scaled effect. Yet, the language of private sector efficiency being sufficient to supplant public sector even-handedness echoes with the clanking sound of falsehood from sea to shining sea. You can’t, as so many voices aver, run a quintessentially public enterprise like a business. It’s not built on the commercial bottom line of creating or feeding needs in consumers for goods and services. Government meets needs that private markets can’t or won’t or should not because public good outweighs private advantage. It must be run with scale, on sound economic principles precisely to advance that public good, and not for the benefit of a relative few who see public coffers as sources of corporate profit.

Private market rent-seekers who ride on the backs of heavy-laden tax-paying citizens in the name of vaunted private market efficiency, don’t do any of us a favor. It’s very difficult to justify any action that seeks both to tap and deeply undermine confidence in the ability of public institutions to perform essential tasks.

Profiteering privatization allowed to eat away at the wilting fields of what can still be vaguely identified as a liberal democracy distresses those of my generation, and it dismays and frightens young people. I hear it in the musings of my two boys and their friends, as they look ahead and see limited pathways to a better future: chasms ahead rather than bridges in abundance. They’re left to decide whether to throw in with the profiteers or saddle up with the activist posse and fight for a possibly brighter future for all, while risking their own economic security. What if they could look with the eyes of builders, architects and awesome managers and see themselves part of a dynamic, worthwhile enterprise called governing and government? What if they had the faith and belief that a career dedicated to public service would pay off in the form of a better place and better prospects for us all? Do we need a crisis of epochal scale — murderous war, devastating economic depression, searing political scandal — to discern the threads of common good that caused us early in the 20th Century to weave a fabric of strong permanent public institutions? Are we too constrained by our primitive lizard brains to critique the burden we’ve thrust upon the generations to come, design alternatives and enact the hard changes now?

Even the most thriving nonprofit sector, the most robust civil society, just cannot deliver what big public institutions properly constructed can at the giant scale and relative uniformity that a complex society demands. That clarion truth needs to be tattooed on all hands as we grab the rudder of what’s to come. The future will require flexible, grounded pragmatists with firm ideals, not ideologues who hold stubbornly to fixed formulas and pat notions even as our collective ship takes on water and starts to list on its way to sinking.



Siq Chasm by David Stanley (CC by 2.0)