One of the corner stones of conservative ideology over the years has been privatization of government services. The idea is that commercial businesses, competing on a level playing field and operating in an efficient market, will bid on delivering superior services, say for example driver's licenses, at lower cost than bloated government bureaucracies performing the same or similar tasks. The government then acts less as a provider of services and more as a watchdog, and together with consumers, determines which businesses will flourish. Taxpayers benefit from the diversity of choices, a better product or service, the reduced cost, and the economic stimulus of new jobs and markets the private concerns bring to the community. It's not a universally bad idea, but it's not a universal solution either. Because some services are not profitable and never will be.
Consider Emergency Services: It’s not cheap to train and staff first responders; helicopters are expensive. There is no money to be made putting out the average four-alarm fire, or whisking a terrified, middle-class family off a rooftop after a rain swollen river leaves them clinging to the shingles for life. In the aftermath of natural or man made disasters, victims must be able to count on the Coast Guard or the Fire Department to save their lives or property, without first checking with a corporate bean counter a thousand miles away who is providing authorization for immediate action based only on what’s good for his company’s bottom line. Free market magic doesn’t work if there’s no market. And what if we ran certain critical emergency services for profit, using the conservative privatization model utilized by for-profit healthcare insurance companies?
Free Market Magic & The Neoconia, Inc. Emergency Rescue System. Illustration courtesy of Karen Wehrstein
Over the last few years a mutant version of privatization has arisen among neoconservatives that turn all the advantages of private enterprise, as well as the disadvantages of bureaucracy, upside down. In the neocon incarnation, the level playing field is dissolved in favor of government sanctioned monopolies awarded in secret no-bid contracts. Winning companies are not selected by the market; they are arbitrarily chosen by powerbrokers on the basis of political patronage. Wherever possible the work is either off-shored or performed completely outside our borders. Regulation and oversight are discouraged or eliminated. Worst of all, only the profit is privatized – usually into a tiny number of already obscenely wealthy hands -- while overhead, cost, and losses are offloaded onto the taxpayer: It’s the worst of both worlds and a perfect recipe for thievery and fraud most foul.
Cognitive dissonance of enormous magnitude may be nothing new for the dwindling neoconservative base. But, if neocons have their way with privatization, it will be a new and exceedingly painful experience for everyone else.