Are “Public” Things Good?

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Don’t be fooled by the allure and simplicity of “public” solutions or by the politicians making those pitches. In fact, when a politician speaks of all things “public”, make sure your skeptical antenna shoots up.  They sell us the virtue but in the end they take near monopolistic control, certain people are enriched at everyone else’s expense and the problems remain.

Our oldest daughter recently earned her driver’s license and, for the sake of the sanity of my wife and I, we found a used car for her to drive.  As you could imagine, she was ecstatic at that idea.  I was more measured.

“Can I call this my car, Dad?” She asked excitedly.

“No,” I responded. “You can call it the family’s car.”

“Really?” she inquired. “I’m the one who will be driving it most of the time.

“I know.  But, Mom and I bought it.  It’s still the family’s car,” I declared, for fatherly reasons.

Now, let’s imagine she bought it but I still instructed her that the car is actually owned by our entire family.  Anyone in our family could use it at anytime.  All they would have to do is convince me of their need. Ultimately, I would have control over who uses the car.  If this was how her car were treated, it would be understandable if she were frustrated.

Strangely, this is similar to the way many want our society to be treated.  We can hear this idea in the rhetoric of those who espouse the value and virtue of all things “public”.  We recently heard it in Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement of socialist Bernie Sanders where she urged resolutions to our problems by making things privately owned and operated “public”.  The premise being that if you put the word “public“ in front of a noun and emphasize it in speech, it becomes virtuous and good.

Contrary to this assumption, “public“ things are not intrinsically virtuous.  Public entities are governed and run by flawed human beings with the potential for bad judgement, a thought with which most Americans sympathize.  A 2017 survey by Chapman University in California revealed 74% of Americans site government corruption as their top fear:

Three of 4 Americans are more worried about government abuse of power than world war!

Government ownership and intervention also makes it difficult to impossible for private sector operators to compete because they don’t have the power to tax, forcing others to supply revenue.  In the states west of and including Colorado, for example, the US government owns roughly 30% to 84% of the land:

 

On that land government can generate revenue by charging admittance to parks and running cafes and gift shops.  No one else can own that land and engage in private entrepreneurship. All competition is kept out, the very definition of a monopoly regardless of how it is justified.

Additionally, when a politician speaks of things “public“ it is a clear indication of their intent to control. Observe “public” education.  Taxpayer-funded education accounts for X% of K-12 schools nationwide. Competition is limited to a small percentage of private school options.  All others are under the thumb of the state and local governing boards which offer indirect and limited accountability for parents at best.

At the same time, politicians pitch “public” things by telling us if they have control, we will be given a better world. Despite the fact that the total pages in the Federal Register of national regulations have grown by more than 10x since 1938 the societal problems those regulations purport to solve persist:

The examples go on and on.

In the meantime, the politicians and bureaucrats continue to enrich themselves.  From 2004-2012, the average American saw their net worth increase 3.7% per year while the average Member of Congress experienced a growth rate near 5 times that number.

For their part, Federal bureaucrats across all education levels earn an average of 17% more in total compensation (pay plus benefits) than comparable private-sector counterparts.  Not a bad deal, especially considering the pension waiting for them at the end of their working years.

The problems aren’t fixed but the politicos are enriched.

So, don’t be fooled by the allure and simplicity of “public” solutions or by the politicians making those pitches. In fact, when a politician speaks of all things “public”, make sure your skeptical antenna shoots up.  They sell us the virtue but in the end they take near monopolistic control, certain people are enriched at everyone else’s expense and the problems remain.

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