Last weekend, the New York Times ran a must-read piece on the city of Sandy Springs, Georgia, an Atlanta suburb of nearly 100,000 residents that has managed to privatize the overwhelming majority of local government services — and is reaping incredible benefits as a result (another city with similar policies — Weston, Florida — was recently profiled in Governing).
Sandy Springs doesn’t have to worry about out of control public pensions, spiraling debt, or restive unions. The reason? It doesn’t have any of them.
Of course, this being the New York Times, their reporter, David Segal, might as well have been dispatched to the surface of Mars. Failing to find much in the way of practical drawbacks, he grasps for a moral failing, resulting in this unintentionally hilarious passage:
Hovering around the debate about privatization is a basic question: What is local government for? For years, one answer, at least implicitly, was “to provide steady jobs with good wages.” But that answer is losing its political tenability, says John D. Donahue of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. “A lot of jobs in government are middle-class jobs that in the private sector are not middle-class jobs,” he says. “People aren’t willing to support conditions for public workers that they themselves no longer enjoy.”
In a way, what Sandy Springs and other newly incorporated towns have done harks back to a 19th-century notion of taxation, which was much less about cross-subsidies and much more about fee for service.
To which I say “it’s about damn time.” If local government was ever about “steady jobs with good wages,” it was a mistake. The purpose of government is to provide vital services to the citizenry that aren’t produced by a free market. That may produce “steady jobs with good wages,” but that’s an effect of the endeavor, not a cause for it. If public service isn’t the goal, then the whole project is simply a racket to employ one group of people at another group’s expense.
What has the New York Times and the Harvard faculty aghast is the notion that government ought to serve some useful purpose for the taxpayers and that its value is measured only by the extent to which it fills that charge. That the citizenry of places like Sandy Springs and Weston are beginning to realize that is a real source of optimism for the future of local government.