I got into a little back and forth on twitter yesterday about having written that “It’s often the case that, in principle, contracting-out should be able to save money” as a preface to some remarks about problems with contracting-in-practice that are likely to be made worse by Citizens United.
So to expand on my remarks, it’s worth starting with the observation that many liberals who think they’re against “privatizing” government services or dread contractors in fact have no real problem with the practice. After all, the federal government doesn’t manufacture its own printer toner and your state’s Department of Education doesn’t manufacture desks. The official standard is supposed to be that you don’t outsource “inherently governmental functions” but that’s a bit tautological. Conversely, I often hear it said that we could save money by contracting this or that out without skimping on quality but it’s not possible because the vile public employees unions won’t let us. This, however, is kind of an apples to oranges comparison — the contractors can and will lobby to have programs turned to their private benefit rather than to a public purpose.
The point is that one way or the other, clientelism — the attempt to make programs benefit service providers rather than service recipients — isn’t something you can rule out procedurally. It’s something people need to be vigilant about in general.