Monday, December 26, 2016

Privatized Freedom

Joseph Natoli has a piece at Truth-Out that's well worth reading, but for all the explication and coverage of the deliberate destruction of Detroit school "The Great Unwinding of Public Education: Detroit and DeVos" has some keen insights into the underlying pathologies fueling the privatization movement. Here's the line that reached out and whacked me right between the eyes:

We have internalized the mantra that all human endeavors that are placed in the hands of private enterprise succeed, whereas those run by the government not only do poorly but also rob freedom-loving people in the US of their freedom.

Well, yes.

I can feel the tension between the two poles. I know that when it comes to education reform, I'm most easily lumped in with a progressive crowd, but my distrust of government is large and deep. In the long run, centralized power has a bunch of built-in problems. To work, it has to attract people who are pretty good at figuring out (or recognizing) solutions all or most of the time, and that describes basically .02% of the human race-- any kind of government that focuses on finding the One Right Answer for everyone is guaranteed to make a hash of things.

But the pitfalls of government are worse than that. Libertarian comedy writer P. J. O'Rourke describes politics as "the business of getting power and privilege without possessing merit." And in the long run, the more power and privilege a government possesses, the more it will attract people who simply want the power and the privilege. We are living through the demonstration of that principle right now, with a Congress that devotes half its workday to working for re-election, a whole raft of elected officials who have no interest in really governing effectively, and a Presidency captured by a dim-witted mass of yawping ego who wants the office for the same reason that he wants shiny things and hot women-- somewhere in the yawning gulf that is where his heart should be, there's a tiny voice that tells him that if he Gets Stuff it will prove he's actually awesome.

And this is doubly scary because over the decades, we have allowed, even encouraged, more power to drift to DC. Each new President gets to play with new toys left lying around by the last one.

In short, I have a great deal of sympathy for the notion that government is very bad at doing very many things, and that often government's ideas about the One Right Answer we should all be choosing do, in fact, strip a little more of our liberty away from us.

But-- and this is a huge but-- that doesn't mean that private enterprise offers any kind of solution.

In fact, one of the ironies of this whole debate is that very often when government is busy stripping us of liberties and freedom, that government is actually serving as a mask for private enterprise.

This is not new. The Boston Tea Party that we so like to sort-of half-remember? Patriots didn't pick the East India Company's shipment of tea at random-- the tax they were protesting had been passed, in large part, to help the East India Company overcome its own financial struggles. The first Tea Party was thrown just as much to fight a corporation as a crown.

The examples are endless, from regulations about asbestos in school passed to benefit asbestos removal companies, all the way up to mobilizing the US Army to crush striking unions. Sometimes we are seeing the result of an ideological alignment, but sometimes it's simple math-- to keep their office, an elected official needs the kind of money that only a friendly, happy corporation can provide.

Are corporations better at getting things done? Sure-- some things. Corporations are good at building things, selling things, and making money from the process. But they have always-- always-- depended on government to maintain the playing field and they have always lobbied for that field to be tilted in a way that benefits them. The very notion of a Free Market is a fiction-- there is no such thing and there never has been. Instead, we have at best a free-ish market maintained by a government and its set of rules, and because those rules are chosen and maintained they are always open to debate, and corporations will always want to debate them, to game whatever system is in place. Because what corporations are best at is looking out for themselves, their own profits, their own power, their own benefits.

That means that the common good, the benefits, safety, freedom and liberty of citizens is never top of the corporate list. We have a fun fiction where we argue that we can make citizens look as if they are top of the list by linking profits to citizen well-being, but the important thing to remember is that even in such situations, the corporation is still looking out for itself, and the best way to do that is to try to get a favorable tilt on the field. Fewer rules to follow. More permission to pick and choose only profitable customers. The profiteers have every reason to stay close-- very close-- to the rule makers, because that relationship is far more profitable than the relationship with citizens.

In fact, the biggest lie in the mantra that Natoli cites is not that private enterprise does better work than the government-- the biggest lie is that there is some big difference between private enterprise and government, that they are not a collection of connected people moving back and forth within many private and public goals, always serving the same corporate power complex.

I don't have an answer to any of this. Well, the answer is to have people in power with some sort of moral and ethical sense and guidance, but I don't know how we get there from here. The answer is also to have a government that actually represents the citizens of the country; not sure how we get there, either. Elected officials are, at least, elected.

Maybe it starts with educating people to scenarios like the one in Detroit, to lifting the curtain so that a few more people every day can see the greedy, grasping, rapacious men behind the curtain, one wearing the mask of government and the other the mask of free enterprise, both liars, both working the levers of power for no cause but their own. Maybe if enough people see that enough times, it will make a difference. I truly don't know.

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