American conservatives like to say that private enterprise is always better than government action. They tell stories of government inefficiency, and promote the idea that competition drives all innovation.
But is it really true?
Before our society fell into the pit of “I've got mine” in the mid-1980's and started to pretend that we could have everything we wanted without paying for it, here are some of the things that the government used our tax funds to do:
- start Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, saving a generation from dire poverty and possible civil war in the Great Depression.
- built a fantastic National Park System
- helped to save freedom in World War II, and to rebuild Germany and Japan afterwards to prevent global war from happening again
- built the Interstate highway system
- cleaned the air and water in places like Los Angeles
- started the nuclear power industry
- started the electronics industry
- started the computer age
- started the modern drug age, developing the first antibiotics, and things like the Epipen
- landed humans on the Moon
Most of these things were of no interest to the business community before they were developed, because the pay-offs were too far in the future at the time. Once the concept was proven, they swooped in and sucked up all of the profits from the taxpayer-funded research and infrastructure.
Now let's look at some of the negative parts of competitive private enterprise:
- we tried to privatize much of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts to avoid a draft, and ended up with gasoline delivered there by Halliburton for $15+ a gallon, and dozens of Afghanis beaten to death at Khandahar airfield by Blackwater operatives, in our name.
- even though the average private school underperforms public schools in standard measures, certain parties pushed the charter and voucher movements. The charters in Ohio are so underperforming that they are the laughing-stock of the charter movement itself.
- the state universities in the country are a bargain, producing top-quality teaching and research at 40-50% of the cost per student of private universities, yet get little but criticism and more funding cuts
- we used the overflow of convictions from the War on Drugs to fund a system of private prisons, which turned out to be at least as expensive as public ones, and totally corrupt, with many judges bribed to give longer sentences.*
- we have the most expensive per capita healthcare system in the world, with some of the worst outcomes in the developed world. Until the ACA, the majority of that spending went directly to the insurance companies, which might be a win for capitalism, but makes mockery of the 'competition' idea.
In short, except for the shuddering fear that Americans experience at the word 'socialism', we actually seem to like the concept, when we look at individual cases.