President Bush’s announcement last week of his intention to privatize up to half the federal workforce came with the usual confident talk about reducing government costs and improving services.Market ideologues may believe that, but there is no reason citizens should be so gullible. Instead, we might ask critical questions about the likely consequences of large-scale privatization and why the Bush gang is so keen on it.
Research suggests that where there is real market competition for relatively simple goods and services, governments can save money and ensure quality services through privatization. Contracting out tasks such as office cleaning may save taxpayers some money in some cases (though often at the cost of lower wages and reduced benefits for workers).
But that is not the majority of cases. Often the short-term savings that privatization promises evaporate quickly once competitors drop out; contractors who underbid to win a contract are free to raise rates later, often leaving governments with little choice but to accept. For complex contracts, oversight costs are high, or inadequate oversight leads to corruption. Experience at the local and state levels suggests that in services such as vehicle and highway maintenance, privatization actually ended up costing taxpayers more.
So, the cautious (dare we say “conservative”) position would be that when the complexity of the job or the nature of the market argues against privatization, we should go forward only after careful study demonstrates otherwise. But the Bush proposal suggests just the opposite — an assumption in favor of privatizing at breakneck speed, which means careful study will be overridden by ideology and good-old-boy politicking.
At one point in U.S. history a similar process ruled the day — the spoils system — and in 1883 a civil-service system was created to thwart politicians who used jobs and contracts to reward political allies and line their own pockets. Today’s officials assure us that they can be trusted to carry out privatization cleanly, but logic and experience argue for skepticism. Every politician who ever took money to lock in a contract for a buddy told the public, “You can trust me.”
If research and experience on privatization don’t support Bush’s enthusiasm, why he is pressing for such wholesale change?One potentially relevant fact: Last year 37. 4 percent of government workers were unionized, compared with 9 percent of private-sector employees. Since organized labor consistently supports the Democratic Party, it’s plausible that Bush simply wants to reduce the number of workers in a more unionized sector.
Even if short-term political payback is part of it, there may be a more fundamental goal, not only in contracting out union jobs but the push to privatize programs such as Social Security: Undercut any organization that might increase the political power of working people. Eliminate any program that might lead people to work for common interests. Destroy any ideas people might have about solidarity.
Even though most unions in the United States years ago accepted a subordinated role to big business, they are a target of the right-wing. Why? Because they remain a latent threat. Even if not engaged in radical political activity today, unions are a place where ordinary people can come together politically and wield power, and hence they must be eliminated.
Social Security is another obvious target. While hardly a complete solution to poverty among the elderly, it’s a successful program. That’s why the right-wing pundits and politicians have worked so hard to scare the public into believing Social Security is on the brink of collapse. The immediate goal is to allow Wall Street to get its hands on more money through private retirement funds, but the long-term goal is to privatize not just these programs but people’s minds, to try to eliminate any sense that we have common bonds and obligations to each other.
In Bush’s 2003 budget, this “competitive sourcing initiative” to eliminate federal government jobs is explained as part of the pursuit of “a market-based government unafraid of competition, innovation, and choice.”
I am not afraid of competition, innovation or choice. But I am deathly afraid of a market-based government, where the values of corporate capitalism — the pursuit of profit to the exclusion of all other considerations — will overwhelm the values of democracy — equality and liberty.
ROBERT JENSEN is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, a member of the Nowar Collective, and author of the book Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream and the pamphlet “Citizens of the Empire.”
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.