How the American government slowly became a business | Jon Michaels

1 month, 22 days ago

Ronald Reagan didnt, and couldnt, kill the nanny state. But he did replace it with a commercial upstart a nanny firm, as it were

In the 1980 s, the end seemed nigh for supporters of the US welfare state. The pitchforks were out in force. Pundits, legislators, and newly politicized business and religious leaders joined Ronald Reagan in railing against the American version of what Margaret Thatcher derisively called the nanny state. But a funny thing happened on the way to the gallows. The mob get cold feet.

The torch and pitchfork crowd realise they actually, really liked government programs- at the least the ones that benefited them immediately. They liked their pensions, taxation credits, healthcare, subsidies, licenses, and housing and education loans. They liked their clean air and water. They liked their safe workplaces. And they liked the fact that they could trust the food, medications, consumer products, and financial services and instruments they purchased. What they truly detested, they decided, was the government itself- its people, its procedures, and its institutional and organizational architecture.

And so, over the past 30 -odd years, elected officials across the political spectrum have acted accordingly, simultaneously pandering and deceiving the American populace by disassociating government goods and services from the governmental forces, at least as it has been traditionally conceived and staffed. Though these efforts have been framed, quite pointedly, in terms of lessening the size, reach, and power of government, what’s really happening is that the government is being transformed.

There is no denying that the country today is bigger and more potent than ever before. It just happens to look most varied- a consequence of it being privatized, marketized, and generally reconfigured along decidedly businesslike lines. In short, Reagan didn’t, and couldn’t, kill the nanny nation. But he did replace our old familiar nanny with a commercial upstart- a nanny firm, as it were.

Consider just some of the ways the privatized, businesslike state comports itself today.

Private contractors now number in the millions. These contractors have taken leading roles in fighting our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. They operate prisons and immigration detention facilities. They facilitate domestic monitoring and counterterrorism operations. They draft major rules, shape energy, transportation, health care and environmental policy and render public benefits decisions. In addition, they also collect taxes and monitor and enforce regulatory compliance across the vast administrative expanse.

The stated justification for such privatization is, very often, that contractors are more efficient than their government equivalents- driven, we’re told, by market competition to provide higher-quality and lower-cost services.

At the same time, government agencies are privatizing from within, radically overhauling their in-house employment practises to better match what we generally find in the private sector. Among other things, hundreds of thousands of tenured civil servants have been reclassified as at-will employees, subject to summary termination just as they would be unless they are working for McDonald’s.

The Trump administration is pushing further still, promising to strip the rest of the career federal workforce of its legal protections. The stated justification for this overhaul- this marketization of the bureaucracy- is substantially the same: to make government workers internalize the pressures, demands, and incentives of the competitive private labor market.

Government contracting and marketizing the bureaucracy represent the biggest, most consequential manifestations of the contemporary business like government movement. But those seeking to remake the country have experimented further.

They’ve created an array of intra-governmental venture capital and IT firms; transformed essential bureaucratic offices into for-profit revenue centers; converted our storied space program into something akin to a galactic Uber; established charitable trusts, permitting wealthy individuals and powerful corporations to finance and effectively direct country programs and initiatives; and made VIP prisons, posh accommodations for those able and willing to pay a hefty cost to buy their way out of gen pop.

This is, for better or worse, the moment we find ourselves in. Americans are( grudging) fanatics of government goods and services, still deeply allergic to government instruments and instrumentalities, and still very much captivated by the lures of the market.

But the country cannot be separated from its people, practices, and infrastructure without doing considerable violence to our constitutional order. For it is these very( and very distinctive) people, practices, and infrastructure- and the interplay among them- that legitimate the nation and validate nation exercisings of monarch, coercive, and moral force.

And it is these distinctive performers, procedures, and organizations that infuse liberal democratic governance with the necessary admixture of normative politics, civic engagement, professional expertise, financial disinterest, and fidelity to the rule of law.

A state shorn of these constitutive people, practises, and infrastructure is perhaps better described as proportion gated community, component corporate conglomerate.

To be sure, gated communities and corporate conglomerates have their charms. And so does businesslike government. It promises to be faster, more innovative, cheaper, and more “customer” friendly- and that no doubt voices appealing to any number of us who have endured long lines at the DMV or who have otherwise experienced wasteful, sclerotic, or simply apathetic government.

But even assuming that those promises can be kept( a big if ), there is good reason not to embrace privatized, commercialized government.

Members Members of the US-based Blackwater private security firm in Baghdad in 2005. Private contractors now number in their millions. Photo: Marwan Naamani/ AFP/ Getty Images

Government’s force, and ultimately its favor, turns on it being decidedly unlike IBM or Walmart or Facebook. Government is- and very much ought to remain- a basically different enterprise.

Businesslike government is all about espousing the logic and discipline of the market. But the market, at least in its pure, idealized state, is not democratic, deliberative, or juridical. Nor need it be. It is the world of Schumpeter and Coase , not Montesquieu or Madison.

We can tolerate, even admire, corporate hierarchy, leanness, and efficiency. We can do so because those organizations have( or are presumed to have) a single, objective mission: to maximize stockholder value.

We can tolerate, even admire, the unforgiving the statutes of capitalism. We can do so because only in the rarest of circumstances does the single-mindedness of individual businesses imperil our economic or national security. And we can tolerate, even admire, the rising cult of all-powerful CEOs. We can do so because, generally speaking, their word is not statute, their fiefdoms are bounded, and rarely can they exert real coercive force.

None of the apparently celebrated marketplace norms, practices, or fiduciary and legal duties translates well into the liberal democratic arena, and surely not into our constitutional realm.

For starters, there is no such thing as a single public goal or truth to pursue. We have no sorcery commonwealth formula, surely none that’s the political equivalent to the maximization of stockholder value.

Some of us surely prize national economic growth above all else, and those who do might be the closest approximation of corporate stockholders. But many do not. Instead, we privilege the plight of the poor and disenfranchised. We prioritize social justice or environmental causes or consider the best government to be as unobtrusive as possible. Interests in military hegemony, reproductive rights, and religious freedom hurl yet more, often incommensurable, variables into the mix.

As such, we cannot readily reduce the goal of government to a single, undifferentiated objective; nor can we readily aggregate or harmonize our interests and channel them through one political leader, an inside-the-Beltway version of a Steve Jobs or Henry Ford.

Rather, we need multiple voices, amplified by multiple platforms, constantly speaking to a multiplicity of decision-makers scattered across multiple branches of government. This isn’t efficient or orderly. But it is democratic, pluralistic, all-inclusive, and deliberative.

What’s more, even if we somehow could effectively aggregate, rank, or harmonize our own interest and direct a single leader to implement the public’s will, we still should defy the temptation to do so. We should defy for two reasons.

First, absolute power perverts, and a renegade monarch that chooses to departed from the public’s charge poses infinitely greater danger than does a rogue or simply tone-deaf corporate CEO.

Second, and more importantly, even if we could effectively aggregate the public’s interests and ensure the selection of a faithful leader, there still is the very real possibility of tyranny by the majority. That is to say, a dominant clique, or cluster of factions, might settle on a course of action that stigmatizes or subjugates broad class of minorities.

In either case, we want, indeed require, a heterogeneous, overlapping, and cross-checking government to limit the possibility of shortsighted or abusive exercises of State power.

Sovereign power, unlike most( but of course not all) express of corporate power, is intentionally and necessarily morally inflected and coercive. As such, so long as men and women- rather than angels- govern, that sovereign power must be subject to checks and balances, even if such checks and balances are messy, time-consuming, and very much lend themselves to what market actors hold garbage and obstinacy.

It is for this reason that the United States is founded in big portion upon a simple structural commitment: the separation of powers. Separation prevents totalitarianism, promotes liberty, and helps enrich public policy. Separation devotes voice and venue to any number of important but conflicting values and offer procedures and pathways for those values to collectively inform American public law and governance.

This simple structural commitment, and all that it enables, animated the framers’ constitutional architecture. But it didn’t stop there. This commitment to be carried out into the twentieth century, ultimately structuring( and legitimating) our modern welfare country.

Now, however, that dynamic commitment- a commitment to separation of powers all the way forward- is very much threatened by the instant motion to render the American government more like a business- and a politicized one at that.

Jon Michaels is professor at UCLA School of Law

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