Acton Commentary

Top 10 Reasons to Rely on Private Sector Markets


Americans have less confidence and trust in government today than at any time since the 1950s. This is the conclusion of the Pew Research Center survey released in mid-April. Just 22 percent expressed trust in government to deliver effective policies almost always or most of the time. With the robust expansion of the economic role of the federal government under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the Pew poll is evidence of an opportunity for advocates of freer markets.

That Americans distrust their government is not unadulterated good news. An effective rule of law, one aspect of which is a government that can be trusted to act justly and equitably, is a necessary precondition of the free and virtuous society. Still, in the context of the extraordinary extension of government control in areas such as finance and health care, news of political skepticism offers an opportunity for those who recognize that both the moral and economic wellbeing of our nation depends more on the health of individuals, families, and other institutions than on the engineering of bureaucrats. The apostle Peter advised Christians to “always be ready to give an answer” to those who ask for “a reason of the hope that is in you” (I Pt 3:15). This advice is relevant for defenders of private sector reliance. We must not merely repeat slogans regarding private enterprise. We must express the reasons why we defend decentralized, voluntary organization of our economy over centralized control. Here are my top 10 reasons, in reverse order, for the hope that is within me.

10. Difference in competition. Competition is at work in both government and private markets, but the competition in markets is more civil and evenhanded. Business competition is similar to golf. Each competitor works to improve his own performance. Political competition—between parties, between candidates for office, and among legislators—is more like basketball. While a competitor works to elevate his own game, participants also attempt to undercut, debilitate, and intimidate opponents. It is common to see political advertising that is hostile, even to the extent of lying about the opponent. Combative ads are the exception in business appeals to consumers.

9. Enterprise expansion. In private markets, a business venture has to be profitable to expand, whereas expansion is “in the DNA” of government ventures and programs. Program beneficiaries and bureaucratic suppliers work in collaboration with elected politicians to expand particular government programs. The basic idea is this: If a government program is good, an expanded program would be even better.

8. Enterprise contraction or elimination. Business enterprises that incur chronic losses must either change or die. In contrast, “government program elimination” is almost an oxymoron. The political alliance that works to expand a government program can almost always fend off efforts for cutbacks or elimination. The market process, meanwhile, is a “sorting out mechanism” based on loss and profit. The life of any business venture is always tentative.

7. Gradations of success. Few industries are dominated by one or two firms. Instead, many participants compete, success is measured by small gains in profits and market shares, and there can be multiple winners. For political elections and legislative votes, however, it is “winner take all.” With a 49 percent vote in an election, you are a loser. The thin margins for many political outcomes make elections and legislative battles rather brutal affairs.

6. Product diversity. Product differentiation is pervasive as businesses try to appeal to new consumers. Different businesses try to cater to different market segments, resulting in wide consumer choice. Government provision of a product or service tends toward “one size fits all.”

5. Sources of evaluation and accountability. Market accountability is “bottom up” from consumers, with diverse criteria of evaluation. Government accountability is “top-down” based on the discretion of political authorities. Performance measures are rather narrowly defined, as with high-stakes testing for K-12 education in “No Child Left Behind.”

4. Consumer knowledge. Individuals tend to be more knowledgeable about their market choices than about their government choices—for both candidates and policy issues. The reason is that a consumer gets to make decisions for him- or herself. With government, a citizen just gets to “weigh in” with a vote, a contribution, or phone calls to legislators. A citizen’s influence on political outcomes is highly diluted and may be regarded as nil, diminishing citizen incentive to become informed. Moral responsibility is always enhanced by a close connection between actions and consequences; the political process weakens this connection. What economists call “rational citizen ignorance” is woven into the fabric of elections and public policy debates.

3. Influence of the ignorant. Rationally ignorant citizens are often decisive in politics. In a tight election contest, the ad wars in the days prior to the vote are focused on the less knowledgeable voters. The more informed citizens of the left, right, and middle have already decided. The stage is set for the ill-informed, perhaps a fourth of the electorate, to determine the election result. In contrast, private sector suppliers must cater to the more knowledgeable “voters.” For instance, a computer producer caters to computer geeks and purchasing executives at Walmart and Best Buy rather than attempting to take advantage of the poorly informed. Computer purchasers who know very little about gigabytes benefit from the dominant role of knowledgeable buyers.

2. Time horizon for decisions. Business management tends toward balanced consideration of short-term and long-term impacts. Even if a business owner expects to sell out shortly, the owner wants the enterprise to have healthy long-term prospects so as to fetch a high selling price. For our national government, elections can be no more than four years away for a president, two years for a representative, or six years for a senator. As a result, government decision-making tends to emphasize short-term costs and benefits relative to long-term impacts. Social Security and Medicare reform remains on the backburner because long-term solutions involve significant short-term sacrifice.

1. Cost control. Since we are in the grip of exploding federal deficits and debt, my No. 1 reason for concern about government is its inability to control costs. For the private sector, the profit motive means that managers are always in tune to avoiding unnecessary expenses and to controlling costs of production. Effective resource management translates to higher business profit. Profit is no part of the equation in the legislative process or in bureaucratic management. Rather than limiting costs, bureaucratic managers will spend every dime appropriated. And legislators are generally inclined to fund bloated budgets. “Cost-effective government” is an oxymoron.

Polling results show the tide is starting to turn against big government solutions to economic challenges. To intensify and solidify this shift, we must make the underlying case for decentralized market solutions. Preserving a sphere of action for private enterprise both makes economic sense and empowers individuals as actors with moral responsibility instead of relegating them to pawns in a high-stakes political game.

John Pisciotta is associate professor of economics at Baylor University.