This image has been circulating all the usual social media outlets over the last few days:
It’s depressing, but there’s a lesson here for us to learn from, and possibly not the one you might think.
There exists a large contingent of Americans who think that everything is only ever improved by privatization, that competition and self-interest drive progress and result in the greatest possible end result. They believe that as many facets of public services as possible (for some people, the ideal is “all of them”) should be privatized.
The inverse of this philosophy is essentially communism — the idea that everything private should be made public in order to spread the wealth of business to the general population.
Both of these philosophies, while noble in their intentions, are wrong. The problem is that we only seem to have acknowledged that this is true of communism. Advocates of ideological privatization are still given enormous amounts of airtime (in part because you don’t see many communists owning large corporations and media conglomerates). The people we see on television — or rather are allowed to see on television — have a bias that favors the interests of the people bringing us that information. After all, why would they allow propagation of a message that undermines their entrenchment? (Even Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have their leashes, but that’s a different discussion for another time.)
The United States has on the whole spent the last century demonizing communism — often not over any of the actual tenets of the philosophy, but for political reasons and out of fear. Mostly, it was conflated with Stalin’s totalitarian government, despite the fact that communism is an economic philosophy and not a system of government. At this point it’s just a blanket buzzword used to describe anyone who questions capitalism, used much the same way as socialism. As Inigo Montoya put it, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
That’s not to say that there aren’t reasons to demonize communism. It just plain doesn’t work, because despite all our beliefs and desires that things were otherwise, humans aren’t all equal. They should be regarded equally, yes, but you’ll run into conflicts with reality if you try to limit them all equally. Humans do need incentives and largely do operate based on self-interest, and if all tasks yield equal reward, it makes people less willing to opt for more challenging activities. Sure, not all motivation is monetary, but leveling everything and completely removing individual benefit from individual effort causes major problems. We end up squelching the brightest flames by telling them they can only burn so much.
But that doesn’t matter, because communism is already not taken very seriously in this country. At least, not nearly as seriously as its converse, the “privatize everything” crowd, which is equally wrong. Just as an example (aside from the image above), a for-profit fire department would let your home burn to the ground if you didn’t pay for their services. (As has already happened.) And privatized prisons are an all-around nightmare, which is what happens when you create financial incentive to incarcerate as many people as possible, and keep them there for as long as possible. If you’re trying to maximize profits for this one particular business model, then it’s a tremendous success. But it’s also a success if you’re trying to become a fascist. Or if you’re looking to dehumanize people and ruin their lives. Or if you’re trying to eradicate forgiveness. Or if you’re some kind of sadist who loves punishment but hates rehabilitation. So it depends on what our goals are.
For whatever reason, instead of shooting their ideology down the same way we do with communism, we still give credence to the notion that we should always move government in the direction of greater privatization, as if privatization was somehow intrinsically a good thing.
It’s not intrinsically a bad thing, either, though. It’s just that operating for profit changes the models and motivations. The goals always transform from whatever they are (e.g. more humane and more rehabilitative strategies for criminals, or objective and comprehensive free education, or the greatest preventative healthcare system and longest average life expectancy) into “becoming the most profitable”, and that works to drive a lot of systems, but not a lot of others. Profit as a goal is fundamentally incompatible with other goals. So it depends on what we’re trying to accomplish. We need to differentiate between for-profit models working to make a profit and for-profit models working to actually accomplish the things we want. A father can be a successful father without charging for it.
In other words, we need to separate the success of financial gain from the success of actually achieving what we set out to do. They’re different things, and “profit” is a fundamentally incompatible goal with a number of other things. Perhaps not with “building the fastest computer” or “making the most comfortable clothes”, but certainly with “a logical, rehabilitative criminal justice system” or “affordable healthcare for everyone who needs it”.
The underlying problem is that we still try to work from ideology outward, instead of from reality inward. Instead of looking at what works and doesn’t work using a scientific lens, and finding the right tools for the job, we keep trying our damnedest to shoehorn the world into the boxes we think it should fit in. No matter how hard you try, you will never, ever get for-profit prisons to work. And you can keep trying, but you’ll be ruining lives in the process.
Until we acknowledge that both the public and the private sectors are necessary and have a place in our civilization, and that we shouldn’t move in either direction out of pure principle but rather figure out which solution works based on observable evidence, we’re going to continue to get things wrong. Insisting that every screw is philips-head just because you think that’s the best configuration doesn’t make it so, no matter how hard you try. You have to acknowledge that there are other screws in the world and carry a toolbox with the right tools for the job.