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Monday, March 4, 2024
March 4, 2024

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Jayne: You think government is useless? Then hit the road

By , Columbian Opinion Page Editor

How about roads? Let’s start with that.

You see, a couple weeks ago, I received an email from a loyal reader: Name one thing government does better than the private sector. Just one. I’m waiting. Privatization is always more efficient. Or something like that; I’m paraphrasing. The reader might have underlined always and written in all caps with exclamation points. I don’t remember.

So let’s begin with roads. After all, it probably would not be a good idea to privatize roads. If our neighbor paved a street through their property, we would not be too happy about it. If an Oregon resident decided to build a bridge and indiscriminately hook it up with Columbia Street in Vancouver, it might cause some problems. If competing private companies started paving roads with no concern for how they mesh with streets built by other companies, well, it would not be very efficient. Dead ends don’t help traffic flow.

Yes, it is safe to say the planning and construction of roads is more efficient when handled by a governing body. Yet that does not prevent the absurd trope that private industry is inherently better than government.

In some cases, this is true. That is why governments do not produce basketball shoes or computers or shampoo. But there are, indeed, many things that government does more efficiently than the private sector.

Take public health. The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis — now March of Dimes — was founded by the Roosevelt administration in 1938 and later funded research by Jonas Salk. By 1955, that research resulted in a polio vaccine that has nearly eradicated the disease. The collective economic power of government and the ability to focus that power on a specific goal is essential to public health.

Or take The Marshall Plan. The United States rebuilt Europe following World War II, forging diplomatic and economic alliances that have stabilized the world and created prosperity for generations. The federal government undertook this project because nobody in the private sector had $13 billion (more than $100 billion in today’s dollars) lying around to rebuild a continent.

Or take the Apollo program, which cost more than $100 billion in today’s dollars and resulted in six moon landings. Various private enterprises today are trying to develop space travel; they would be stuck on the ground without the technology from a government enterprise more than 50 years ago.

Heck, take the United States military. Turning the military over to private companies sounds like a great idea — until we actually need them to defend the nation. For those who quiver at the mention of the word “socialism,” we have some news: The U.S. military is an example of socialism. And we should be thankful for it.

In spite of this, arguments persist that every government function could be better handled by the private sector. As noted philosopher Obi-Wan Kenobi said, “Only a Sith deals in absolutes.”

This is us

Just last week, the Trump administration again floated the idea of privatizing the Bonneville Power Administration, which makes about as much sense as an inflatable dartboard. Privatization leads to efficiencies in the absence of monopolies, not for monopolies themselves. Selling BPA assets would not lure competitors into the market, it would simply create a privately owned monopoly that is beholden to stockholders rather than the public — and that would be bad for those of us who benefit from hydroelectric power.

This is painfully obvious, yet those blinded by the privatization dogma remain oblivious to it.

All of which brings us to the crux of the issue: The government is not some detached entity working against the public; the government is us. We gather our resources and our ideas and rely upon a collective effort to solve problems. Sometimes it is efficient, sometimes it is not. And when it is not, we must work to improve it.

And that is something to ponder the next time you are driving along well-organized roads.