When I was a wee libertarian, reading Reason magazine for the first time, private prisons seemed like a great idea. I was coming off of “nuke them til the sand glows” Republicanism, so I wasn’t super worried about prisoner treatment. Besides, we have laws! And then, ugh. I can’t really deal with detailing everything that’s wrong with private prisons, but we can sum it up with “perverse incentives.”
I’m thinking about it because Liz just wrote Exxxotica Porn Expo Will Sue Over Banishment From Dallas Convention Center. Mayor says he doesn’t care if the ban is unconstitutional and triggers a lawsuit because he is protecting the city’s “brand.”
Mayors talking about “brands” makes me think about the trend toward the businessification of government.
There’s this universal instinct to try to make government more efficient. And what’s more efficient than the free market? (Besides mind control and Nazis)
So it’s natural to take lessons from the private sector and apply them to the public sector. Sometimes it seems to work. Privatizations have had lots of great results. See airlines and grocery stores. Privatizations have also had poor results. See Chile (according to some) and private prisons.
No matter what though, market reforms of government programs has unintended consequences. Because every action does. But with government, those consequences are both hard to pivot from because of lumbering bureaucracies and hard to escape because that’s what makes it government.
One unintended consequence of injecting market reforms into government programs is that it makes government seem friendly and legitimate and free markets seem evil and perverse.
I get the impulse to try to insert choice and competition into a system which is in fact defined by lack of choice and competition. But at the end of the day you’re spraying a coercion turd with fine mist of freedom paint. Sure, it’s now sporting a patina of legitimacy. But it’s only a scratch away from revealing its true, stinking nature.
Meanwhile, for most people (especially Millennials) the difference between choice and coercion in the context of government is neither clear nor compelling.
Therefore, when they see that a coat of freedom paint actually ends up making the turd stinkier (in the case of prison privatization, for example), they don’t blame the turd. They blame the paint.
Turd analogy aside, what I’m saying is that market-based reforms of government makes government look better than it is, and markets look worse than they are.
I’m not saying we should make policy based on what makes markets look good. But I am saying that people who are selling market reforms need to make clear that government is still government at the end of the day. By all means, slap lipstick on a pig. But when that pig ends up selling thousands of young black boys to juvenile detention centers for years for minor infractions, people will conclude that lipstick is bad unless you tell them otherwise. Analogies, how do they work?
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