Most Pilgrim subscribers know that I am pretty heavily involved in public education reform and, in my work in this arena, at least one Texas teachers’ union has described me as a proponent of education “privatization”. An interesting characterization, no doubt intended as a pejorative in my case, and I assume it is assigned to me because I am a long-time proponent of school choice. But it caused me to think more deeply about the ideas underlying much of the debate on reform of the delivery of public services generally, whether health care, education, social services of various types, postal services, etc. Basically, where is it written that high quality public goods cannot be delivered by market-based delivery systems, and what is the reason for the seemingly innate aversion to this innovation? As TV personality John Stossel has noted, the media consistently attempts to convince us that the public, non-profit world is warm and caring and totally devoted to the public good, whereas, the greedy, for-profit world is involved with exploitation of the weak. (To quote the head of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees: “we refuse to be marketized…”, and Ted Kennedy: “What we will not tolerate is the Republican efforts to privatize Medicare”.) One of Stossel’s favorite illustrations is to juxtapose Mother Teresa and financier Michael Milken, and pose the question, which one really helped the most people? Think about it. A good treatment of this debate is by Frederick M. Hess, in his “Making Sense of the Public in Public Education”, in which he defines the various conceptions of “public”, and refocuses the question on the best way to deliver the public goods intended by a particular service, so that the basic concern of public consensus becomes the objective of the service, not its method of delivery. This is a debate that will not go away, and will become more heated as globalization continues to drive down costs and place increasing pressures on governments at all levels to compete for capital and human resources. Only fools, Luddites, and the protectionist left can rest assured that they will not ultimately be subjected, directly or indirectly, to the dynamics of competition.
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