20 July 2010

Maywood CA: A Libertarian Utopia?

The New York Times reports that a densely-populated town in California has taken the step dreamed of by many Americans. Maywood has eliminated its entire public workforce by either outsourcing public services to private contractors, many of whom promptly rehired the city's former employees, or placing itself under the protection of larger authorities like the Los Angeles County sheriff's department. Some residents interviewed by the paper claim that they've seen improvements in services, while others remain skeptical. If the experiment points out anything, it's the redundancy of bureaucracy in the American system. If the sheriff's department can do an adequate job while expanding its coverage to Maywood, then why should Maywood bother with its own police force? This isn't the same thing as privatization, however. The Maywood authorities presumably never thought of farming public security out to private contractors. Nor should they have. Public safety should retain a public character no matter how other things change. Privatizations should be limited to those services where no profit motive can tempt contractors to gouge the community or its citizens.

Ideally, privatization should be authorized by the people rather than politicians, through referenda rather than legislation. Citizens may want efficiency, and taxpayers may want savings, but none of us should lose track of the ideal of disinterested public service affirmed by the Founders, the ideal of public work done from a sense of duty and loyalty to the public, not from a profit motive. If people worry about the existence of a self-interested "political class" of elected officials, they should also worry about the self-interest of those contractors to whom we delegate public responsibilities. The existence of any public thing or res publica will probably create responsibilities that cannot be made profitable, yet must be fulfilled as a matter of public good. As long as that's not forgotten, let the experimentation continue.

1 comment:

d.eris said...

"If the sheriff's department can do an adequate job while expanding its coverage to Maywood, then why should Maywood bother with its own police force?"

It is noteworthy here that the Maywood police department essentially bankrupted the city. From the NYT article on this story:

"A report by the state attorney general last year concluded the culture of the department “is one permeated with sexual innuendo, harassment, vulgarity, discourtesy to members of the public as well as among officers, and a lack of cultural, racial and ethnic sensitivity and respect.”

There are $19 million in claims pending against the police, which made it effectively impossible for the city to get insurance for any of its employees. If Maywood did not dismiss the municipal work force, officials said, bankruptcy would have been the only option."