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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.
By Richard Clay Wilson, Jr.
July 5, 2016
The best-traveled person I know is a retired economic development consultant. Over the last 35 years he worked on and studied economic development projects around the world. Estimating private economic demand for what his clients wanted to build was the easy part of his work. The hard part was assessing the prospects for the public sector. He had to make those assessments because, as much as we may resist the notion, the private sector cannot thrive unless the public sector is thriving too.
Wherever one travels one can readily, almost instantaneously, assess the viability of public sector services, from transportation to public safety to clean air and water to public health. We Americans take pride in deprecating the public sector and venerating the private one. But the plain and evident fact of the matter is that there is no such thing, anywhere in the world, as a robust and successful private sector that stands on its own, independent of and separate from an equally successful public sector.
In the modern world, a broad sufficiency of public goods and services is a prerequisite of other kinds of success. In the absence of decent and sufficient government, it is all but impossible for anything else to be decent and sufficient. One would think this self-evident reality might cause us to value public goods and services. But most Americans remain unpersuaded of the public sector’s worth.
Even though our country has recovered from the financial crisis of 2007 better than everyplace else, we still hear calls for more and more tax cuts and less and less government spending. Despite the evident and widespread deficiencies of our streets and highways, water and sewer plants, schools, police forces and more — the list goes on and gets longer every day — we vote for politicians who do not value, and who want to spend even less for, public goods and services.
Despite our refusal to take stock, it is long since evident that no amount of private sector success can make up for public sector failures to provide essentials such as transportation systems, clean air and water and sanitation, rule of law and law enforcement, public schools, public health and of course national security. The idea of a flourishing private sector absent these and other public services is a non-starter.
This point is separate from the pros and cons of a “welfare state.” Rich countries are free to choose whether or not they want to provide “welfare state” programs and are free to design them as they see fit. No state, however, can attain what is unattainable. A robust private sector economy absent a robust set of basic public goods and services is unattainable.
If we want to get richer as a country, there is only one possible way to do it. Provide sufficient public goods and services where they are lacking. If we spent, say, an additional
$1 trillion on infrastructure and $1 trillion on public goods and services over the next decade or two, concentrating on the poor and left out places in our country, we could transform those places from their current condition of being inhospitable to private sector investment into places where investment and development could, and more often than not would, flourish. The resulting economic growth, not to mention improvements in human well-being, would more than compensate for what the public would spend.
We pride ourselves in being the world’s foremost advocates of capitalism. As such, it makes no sense for us to watch helplessly as poor neighborhoods and people in our country live in circumstances that render them ineligible for the benefits of private sector success. Surely we have an obligation, as a country, to render everyone eligible for the economic rewards of capitalism.
The countries of the poor world lack the public goods and services that are prerequisites to private development due not only to poverty, but to tyranny, corruption and a host of other ills. On the other hand, the poor communities and people in the U.S. lack those public goods and services. Not because our country can’t afford them, but because we don’t want to pay for them. It is a strange and wondrous thing when people who claim to support capitalism oppose the public goods and services that have long since been proven to be preconditions of capitalist success.
Those of us who want our country’s poor people and places to prosper can contribute to that end by supporting decent government services for all. In the long run, it would not only be the right thing to do. But it would also make our country richer, much richer.
Author: Richard Clay Wilson, Jr. is a retired city manager with 38 years of local government experience. He is the author of the book, Rethinking Public Administration: The Case for Management, the second edition of which was published in January 2016 by Melvin & Leigh. Email: [email protected]