Private Provision of Public Services

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Ed Kilgore has a very interesting item essentially pleading for people to take the ideological disagreements inside the left-of-center camp more seriously. He points out that one of the most controversial elements of “third way” thinking in the 1980s and 1990s was the attempt to introduce the idea of “deploying regulated and subsidized private sector entities to achieve progressive policy results” and that this was, and continues to be, a point of fundamentally good-faith controversy:

To put it more bluntly, on a widening range of issues, Obama’s critics to the right say he’s engineering a government takeover of the private sector, while his critics to the left accuse him of promoting a corporate takeover of the public sector. They can’t both be right, of course, and these critics would take the country in completely different directions if given a chance. But the tactical convergence is there if they choose to pursue it.

Kilgore writes that “sorting out these differences in ideology and perspective is, in my opinion, essential to the progressive political project.”

I’m persuaded that acknowledging the existence and principled nature of this difference of opinion may be crucial. But I think the solution is less to sort them out, than to simply problematize the distinction. At the end of the day, no matter what people think they think, nobody remotely sensible actually holds a pure strain of either of these views. Robust disagreement exists about whether public education should be provided exclusively through government-managed public schools or also through government-funded and government-regulated privately-managed charter schools, but nobody thinks it’s objectionable for public schools to buy desks from private desk-makers.

In other words, I think the stark ideological divide exists, but in a lot of ways really shouldn’t exist. The perception of a principled difference about the legitimacy of private provision of public services exists, but the reality is that people are drawing essentially pragmatic conclusions. Which means that disagreements should, ideally, be approached in a spirit of pragmatism.