18 November 2009

"Except for war..."

Mr. Right was going off last night, telling a fellow conservative (who at least isn't obnoxious about it) some horror story about some athlete who had a terrible time trying to get some sort of treatment from Canadian health care, only to get instantaneous service in the U.S. This was all to set up his usual punch line: "Except for war, there's nothing the public sector does that the private sector can't do better."

I've lost track of how many times I've heard that crack, and this was the last straw. I knew there was no point in arguing with him about health care, since he believes that those with money shouldn't have to wait for anything and "life's not fair," anyway. But the more I heard him repeating his mantra, the more it seemed like there was an unexamined premise in it.

"Can I ask you a question?" I asked, "I don't want to go over old ground, but I am surprised that you think that there's anything the public sector can do better. I'm just curious about why you don't think the private sector could wage a war better than the government?"

My question may have taken him aback a little, but he did have an answer: "In the military there isn't the same level of bureaucracy."

"What are you talking about?" I countered, "There's a big five-sided building in Washington that's full of bureaucrats who run the military."

He conceded the point, but believed that military bureaucracy worked differently from its civilian equivalent. It was "more disciplined," even though he allowed that there had been considerable waste in military spending over the years.

I pursued my argument further. "If the problem is bureaucracy, there's plenty of bureaucracy in the private sector, too, in any business."

"Yes, but in the private sector if the bureaucrats screw up they get fired." The implication being that public-sector bureaucrats are immune from discipline (except in the military) and thus render the public sector permanently less efficient than the private sector. The superior discipline in the military against inefficiency remained unexplained, and in any event I think Mr. Right was a little confused by the entire line of inquiry.

"Is it really necessary?" he asked. He wasn't questioning our conversation but the concept of privatizing the military, or the idea that his own logic would seem to make privatizing it a good if not imperative idea. His ultimate point seemed to be that warfare was something that government was supposed to do. It was the public sector's proper area of expertise, and despite the history of mercenary armies in medieval and Renaissance Europe and the more recent ventures in privatizing soldiery around the world, it clearly seemed inappropriate to him to privatize the entire military. If government has any purpose, it seemed, it was to kill our enemies for us.

Judge for yourself whether Mr. Right's arguments were logically consistent or not. The point of the exchange for me was that he revealed a limit to his own belief in the universal applicability of "free-market" principles. Rational or not, it exposed a crack in his ideology, a line separating national security from the omnipotence of the market. It raised the possibility that if one could refine his understanding of what national security means, one might someday get more concessions from him regarding the necessity of government and regulation. But it isn't a big enough possibility to get me holding my breath waiting for the crack to spread.


hobbyfan said...

No amount of discipline can overcome bouts of inefficiency. All you have to do is revisit the umpiring gaffes in the baseball playoffs to emphasize the point.

d.eris said...

That conversation reminds me of a recent Jon Stewart interview with Bill Kristol, in which the comedian got the neocon to admit that US soldiers get good health care, and therefore that the government is capable of providing good health care.

Mr Right: "Yes, but in the private sector if the bureaucrats screw up they get fired." He might have a point there. Though, the problem is that they then end up in government, where they get promoted for screwing up.

If the crack spreads though, might he not end up concluding that the free market would wage better wars too? At least it would be consistent.

Samuel Wilson said...

d., it's when Mr. Right presumes that defective bureaucrats will always get fired in the private sector that he comes off as most naive. Let's not idealize corporate America in order to denigrate the public sector.

Crhymethinc said...

The recent Wall Street debacle proves him wrong. Why were not the upper management of the various financial institutions that nearly went belly-up not fired for their screw ups? Instead, they were rewarded by being given huge bonuses at the public's expense. Why were the heads of the automakers that needed a bailout not fired?

As usual, Mr. Right is wrong. The private sector is no more efficient than the public sector. It all comes down to the people in charge. If they hire unqualified people and allow them to work in an inefficient manner, then the outcome will not be cost effective.

d.eris said...

heh. Good point. They're just as likely to be promoted there too, as Crhyme points out.

Crhymethinc said...

I wonder how Mr. Right would feel about just privatizing the government? Since the public sector is so wasteful, maybe we should just subcontract the office of President out to the lowest bidder? Congress? Supreme Court?