Sunday, August 02, 2009

Public Options

In discussing a "public option" for health insurance, a lot of critics claim that letting the government compete with private industry will kill the insurance companies. But our history of public vs. private proves them wrong.

Take the post office, which doesn't get the credit it deserves for taking your mail from your house to pretty much anywhere else in the USA in a day or two for the low price of 42¢. Sure, there are snags and lost mail and wayward letter carriers who keep bags of undelivered mail in their basement, but those are aberrations in a government-run system that works pretty well.

Has it killed the private delivery system? No. FedEx and UPS and DHL and other companies still thrive and compete, carrying packages and documents and offering services the post office doesn't. You, the consumer, have a choice. Take the option you prefer.

How about public schools? A free service to America's children which you subsidize. Again, there are problems and opportunities for improvement, but that's what leaves the door open to competition from private and parochial schools. I haven't heard of any of them going out of business recently. In fact, people are chomping at the bit to open up their own educational institutions -- charter schools -- because the private marketplace is alive, despite the public school option. To those who say they don't have kids in public school, so they shouldn't have to pay to educate other people's offspring, I say let's see what happens to your property value when there isn't a good public school nearby.

Look at transportation. Local governments subsidize public bus service, light rail, commuter trains, ferries, subways, and airports. If they don't go where you need to go, or you want to get there on your own, you're free to buy your own private vehicle and drive it wherever you like. When you do, you'll be driving on public roads, maintained with tax dollars, not private highways operated for profit by private industry.

Libraries offer a community a place to borrow books for free, but that hasn't pushed Borders, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon out of business. Before you argue that buying a book from one of those stores means you own it and get to keep it, think about how often you even glance at a book once you've finished it. The library gives you two weeks to read it, and then keep it on their shelves if you ever want to see it again, thus saving you space at home! Libraries also lend movies and music, yet they are no obstacle to the success of private companies like Netflix and the iTunes store, both more popular than ever.

One last example: public safety. Multiple law enforcement agencies operate at every level from local to federal, at no extra cost to you (unless you get in trouble, of course). Most of us are happy to have this service, but if your gated community wants more security, you can hire rent-a-cops, just like the mall does. Meanwhile, have you noticed there's never an argument about the publicly-funded fire department? I suppose there isn't a lot of money in private fire protection, so we're more than happy to have that government-provided crew show up when a blaze breaks out.

I'm not arguing that public services work perfectly or that they're the only way to go -- look at the Department of Motor Vehicles, which has no competition, and is on no one's best-run-business list -- but let's acknowledge that there are problems in dealing with private companies, too.

The government option is just that: a choice. You're not forced to use public services to send a package, put your kid through school, get to work, or watch a DVD, but for people who can't afford the private sector, they're thankful they have the public option, and it's not killing private industry. If the same choice were offered for health insurance -- whose cost via the private-only option is eating America alive -- the for-profit insurance industry would not go away.