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Appreciating the public sector

click to enlarge Activist and author Si Kahn. - PHOTO BY ROBERT CORWIN/PHOTO ARTS
  • Photo by Robert Corwin/Photo Arts
  • Activist and author Si Kahn.

How many of us were born safely in public hospitals? How many of us were educated in public schools, public community colleges, four-year colleges or universities?

How many of us drive on high-speed interstate highways, a public project initiated during President Eisenhower's administration a half-century ago?

How many of us work at jobs for which some of us would never have been hired if it weren't for public laws prohibiting discrimination in hiring? How many of us are alive today because of government oversight of our food, medicines and water?

Our community health is protected by public sewer systems, public systems of disease control, public health clinics and hospitals. Public firefighters and police protect our community safety and security. Our national security is guarded by a public military system.

Lord knows, none of these public services is perfect. But they were all begun to respond to real need and the collective realization that if we did not provide for them as goods for all of us, everyone would be the poorer for their lack. They were not set up for, and are not held accountable to, the making of profits. We can call them and the elected officials and public agencies responsible for them to account while they remain in the public domain. We saw what they could do in the tragic moments of 9/11. Since then, private security firms at airports, for example, have been replaced with a federal system.

When the chips are down, we remember what we forget when times are good. We remember basic beliefs that both experience and conscience have taught and held us to.

One is a belief that when we act together, we can make all of our lives better, safer, healthier and fuller. It is a belief in the moral, political good and power of cooperation.

Even the shrink-government advocates' favorite economist, Milton Friedman, reluctantly concedes that government is needed to do what "the market cannot do for itself, namely to determine, arbitrate, and enforce the rules of the game" and to "do through government some things that might conceivably be done through the market but that technical or similar conditions render it difficult to do in that way".

Friedman and his followers albeit exceedingly grudgingly recognize that there are also "some things" that are "difficult" for economic, profit-seeking players to do. Friedman says there are two kinds of such things: those that have "neighborhood effects" and those that are "paternalistic," a label that shows how much he hates to put anything at all on this list.

"Neighborhood effects" need public action because they "arise" when "actions of individuals have effects on other individuals for which it is not feasible to charge or recompense them" curious language for pollution, the example he gives. Friedman states, "The man who pollutes a stream is in effect forcing others to exchange good water for bad."

Well, it's not so often a man (or a woman) who does that; more often it's a corporation. And the corporation isn't really exchanging good water for bad. It is turning water, a necessity of life, into a threat to life. If we must use market language for what shouldn't be a market matter at all, it's rather more like theft the corporation has taken away from us what nature provided.

Friedman also recognizes that something may need to be done by public providers for "madmen and children." Why for madmen? Because "we are willing neither to permit them freedom nor to shoot them."

And children? Well, if absolutely necessary, we can provide care for them through public support systems because "children are at one and the same time consumer goods and potentially responsible members of society." That children are "consumer goods" is a strange way to look at our youngest citizens. That children are also "potentially responsible members of society" means that they don't go in the category of people we can shoot, either. Add children to madmen, then, as unavoidably public responsibilities.

Not morally inspiring, this line of reasoning. But, however grudgingly, even Friedman thus recognized a role for public action to set rules for economic powers, to protect the environment, children, the mentally ill and incapacitated.

In the public sector, we are citizens and political actors. We make decisions together about issues of general significance. In the private sector which does not mean the same thing as in our private lives we are not citizens, or political actors but, rather, economic actors. It is important to remember that economic analysis focuses on the price of everything, but the value of nothing.

Despite all the rhetoric, image advertising, movies and TV shows that glorify private corporations, there is no evidence that the private sector is superior to the public. The private sector is not the source of our freedom, of all that is good about and for life. Our most important relations are not marketplace, buy-and-sell or profit-driven.

Americans must continue resisting the takeover of our government and public sector. We must remember the wisdom of former Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower: "Everybody does better when everybody does better."

Adapted from The Fox in the Henhouse: How Privatization Threatens Democracy, by Kahn and Minnich.


"Jails are full! Now what?": A community conversation featuring author Si Kahn, Sheriff Terry Maketa and others

Victory Outreach Ministries, 2475 E. Pikes Peak Ave.

Tuesday, Sept. 26, 5:30-9 p.m.

Free, with donations accepted. For more information, see page 19.


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