The filing for bankruptcy by the South Bay Expressway underscores a fundamental flaw in the “government as business” crowd’s political philosophy. Simply stated, the “private property” model, in many if not most cases, has serious difficulties providing “public goods.” Which is why, for the last, oh, I don’t know—just how old is civilization? Six thousand or so years?—the private sector has continuously failed to displace the public sector from key areas of human life.
Human beings form civilizations to collectively provide the things which humans need to survive and prosper but can not efficiently provide on their own. Things like collective security (cops and troops). Things like public works (roads, bridges, dams). Things that cost any individual too much to produce. Ever try to pay for your own private army or bridge? A few wealthy—really wealthy, like Kingly of Gatesian wealthy—people might be able to do so on a small scale but most can not do so at all and no-one can do so on a scale that supports a modern industrial economy. By collectivizing labor, either through the direct contribution of labor “in kind” or indirectly through taxation–which is simple a monetarization and reallocation of labor—the community can produce the things we all need but can not or will not produce for ourselves.
Road and other infrastructure construction has been a function of the state since ancient times. When the great Western civilization of antiquity collapsed, so did such construction. The result was the dark ages. Not a lot of new road building then by private or public entities. A handful of toll roads replaced the great Roman road network. The rest was Medieval history.
Over the last 500 years resurgent civilization (Some call it “big government– I call it what it is: Civilization.) began harnessing collective energies to produce public works again. The result was the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution. Recent efforts to privatize essentially public goods in the names of an exaggerated conceptualization of the free market have typically gone the fate of the South Bay toll road. The private entity that takes over providing the public good for private profit either becomes heavily subsidized by the state to meet its bottom line (private prisons come to mind) charge an incredibly inflated price to provide formerly publically provided services (vocational training by community colleges being replaced by for-profit technical institutes and colleges like the University of Phoenix and its nursing program) or simply fail and go bankrupt (like the Toll Road crew.)
Except they can’t just fail and go away like any other business. Mervyn’s can close its doors forever. A toll road that is now a major artery along which homes and businesses have sprung can not be plowed under and forgotten. Government will have to step in and take over the operation and funding though at potentially higher costs than if government had simply controlled the project from the onset.
Candidates for public office, from local city council to statewide positions who proclaim how government should operate like a business and that the private sector can pretty much do anything the public sector does cheaper and more efficiently should keep the fate of the South Bay Toll Road firmly in mind. There are simply some things government does better. That’s why government and civilization have evolved together for millennia. Of course, I don’t expect ideologues driven by their visions of Utopian free markets to be swayed by such simple appeals to history and logic. I would wish they would at least remember what is becoming my favorite phrase these days:
The Government that governs least is Somalia.