The Root of All Evil

A key dividing line between right-wing and left-wing politics comes in the positioning of public versus private money. Those on the right believe almost everything should be entrusted to the private sector, including the management of prisons, schools, health care, and even elections. “Let the market decide” is a popular rallying cry for such folks, and they are eager to point out instances where the bloat of government bureaucracy leads to waste and inefficiency.

Those on the left believe that there are certain aspects of public life that need to remain accountable to the will of the people (as opposed to the will of the highest bidder.) While they are quick to agree that government bureaucracy can be wasteful and inefficient, they see countervailing benefits when it comes to fairness and equal treatment under the law. For example, Presidential candidate Al Gore became famous for promising to keep Social Security investments in what he called a “lock box,” meaning government securities only (as opposed to investing those funds in private equities.)

And, just as an aside, I wonder what would happen if I were to find myself incarcerated in a prison operated by a private company. Wouldn’t the management company have a financial interest in keeping me there for as long as possible; i. e., finding picky reasons to prevent me from being paroled?

This past month, a scandal developed that involved Oregon’s Secretary of State. Apparently, she accepted a high-paying position from a private company that was subject to state audits. And (you guessed it) those state audits were handled by an arm of the office of the Secretary of State. To her credit, she resigned immediately upon confessing to the rather blatant conflict of interests.

A resignation like that is what folks out here in the Pacific Northwest expect from their public officials. But I have, over the course of my adult life, worked in places where conflicts of interests are handled in exactly the opposite way. Instead of being viewed as the sort of corruption that needs to be weeded out of government, they are too often treated as spoils that the winning candidate deserves.

Meanwhile, certain Justices of the U. S. Supreme Court appear to believe it’s okay to accept lavish gifts from individuals whose political interests land them squarely on one end of the political spectrum. How far we have come from the days when the right-wing insisted that Justice Abe Fortas resign because he had $20,000 from a man under investigation for insider trading! See,

During my time as president of two public universities in two different states, I learned to hate the popular phrase “public-private partnership.” The phrase was almost always uttered in its most positive sense—as in “look how much taxpayer money we can save” or “isn’t it great the way business and government can work together instead of fighting all the time.” What I saw when I looked beneath the rug, however, was the extent to which public money was being used to line private pockets in ways that could be legally hidden from the prying eyes of the press.

Yes, there is a great deal that government can learn from private enterprise. And, for the most part, Spirited Reasoners agree that private enterprise works best when markets are left to regulate themselves. But when it comes to the use of public property and taxpayer money, we should expect transparency and accountability at every turn.