Whom can you trust these days? Businesses work for their own advantage. Government works for the public good. How you understand these two statements places you on one side or the other of a whole range of political issues. The resurgence of the American political left in the last several years and the prospect of its continuing dominance in the White House for the next decade prompts the question: What can I trust business and government to do well?
Some issues, we hear people say, are too important to be left to the private sector, governed as it is by considerations of profit and loss. Public oversight and provision ensure the equitable distribution of services for the broad public good instead of the narrow private advantage. In other countries, such people have advocated public ownership of key sectors of the economy, such as energy, transportation, and steel production. Political philosopher Michael Walzer argues that life should not be for sale. So things essential to life—everything from food to healthcare—should come from government as an entitlement. After 9/11, we removed airport security from the private sector and “federalized” it with the understanding it would be handled more responsibly and effectively. We have had more than a decade to ponder that decision.
For others, the unfolding Veterans Affairs hospital scandal has been only the most recent illustration of how difficult it is for government to handle some services and how equally self-interestedly government officials can behave but without the consumer accountability that restrains their counterparts in the private sector. The VA health system is entirely government run and yet is notoriously inefficient, unresponsive to patient needs, and, as we now know, corrupt.
Last week, an inspector general’s report revealed that the average wait for service at the Phoenix VA hospital has been 115 days, not the 14 days required by law and claimed by the hospital. Administrators have been falsifying wait records not only to cover up failures in their system but also to secure generous bonuses for themselves. Self-interest was sacrificing the public good under the influence of both these powerful motivators.
Businesses do work for their private advantage, but they do so by serving customer needs and demands. Granted, they have also been known to manipulate those customers through clever advertising. Instead of putting themselves in our service, they condition us to be in their service. Also, catering to our demands is not the same as serving our good.
Governments naturally exist for the good of the governed, but we have checks and balances, electoral accountability, and a free press because people in government are just like us who are too often tempted to serve ourselves at our neighbors’ expense.
So we do best to let business do what business does best, but police it with reasonable but not counterproductive regulations. Government should police, but a good policeman is unobtrusive, almost invisible, to most people. He oversees life; he doesn’t run it.