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Commentary

How government can expand freedom to everyone

Complaining about government — its failures, its corruption and, in the worst cases, its capacity to oppress — is both an American pastime and a right to be treasured.

But a wholesome desire to preserve ourselves from foolish or tyrannical rule often devolves into disdaining government altogether. The underlying assumption (I exaggerate only a little) is that everything government undertakes is doomed to be less effective, less beautiful, less innovative and less useful than the work of the private sector.

Yes, there are plenty of horror stories about the misdeeds of public bureaucracies. We hear such tales especially from people who run small businesses and find government rule books and the people charged with enforcing them to be, well, less than user-friendly.

Let’s assume all of these stories are true. And then consider another truth: Nearly everyone also has a horror story about dealing with a private bureaucracy — say, a cable or insurance company, a phone service provider or a bank.

When a government bureaucrat fails us, the response is often along the lines of: “Typical government.” But when a private sector bureaucrat fails us, almost nobody says: “Typical private sector.”

This habit is one of the victories of ideological conservatism. We rarely notice the moments when our free, democratically elected government enhances individual freedom. It did so with civil rights laws on behalf of excluded minorities and for large groups of Americans whose freedom was hemmed in by a shortage of income. Just start with elderly Americans on Social Security and Medicare and move on from there.

We don’t associate government with beauty, but what other word describes our national parks or so many of our great public universities? We rarely say the words “government” and “innovation” in the same sentence. But the technology behind the internet through which many will be able to read this column grew out of government-sponsored research and development. And ponder how many lives have been saved or improved thanks to the brilliant minds at the National Institutes of Health.

We should worship neither the state nor the private sector. But after decades of reflexively running down government, we need to rediscover what it actually does, and can do.

For this reason, I hope every 2020 presidential candidate — yes, I’m being optimistic about President Donald Trump — reads the policy book of the summer, “The Public Option: How to Expand Freedom, Increase Opportunity and Promote Equality,” by Ganesh Sitaraman and Anne Alstott. The two law professors are not interested in government taking over everything. On the contrary, what they seek is to expand choice.

A public option, they write, “provides an important service at a reasonable cost, and it coexists, quite peaceably, with one or more private options offering the same service.” Thus: You can use the post office, or ship with FedEx or UPS. You can stay in a national park or go to a private resort. You can use a public library or buy a book. You can head down the fairway at a municipal golf course or join a country club.

Notice that while public options are available to everyone, they’re especially useful for those who don’t have a lot of money. Sitaraman and Alstott suggest new areas where they could be helpful: for health insurance, where the idea is already popular; for child care; for retirement savings to supplement Social Security; and for basic banking. The last could address the needs of roughly 14 million Americans, many with low incomes, who have neither checking nor savings accounts.

The authors are under no illusions that every public option will work well all the time, and they acknowledge the difficulties faced by public schools and public housing. But they also rightly insist that the problems facing both are aggravated by “America’s intense residential segregation by race and by class.”

Critics of public options might call them socialism. But as Sitaraman and Alstott note, “public options can benefit the private sector.” They can create a more fluid labor market by providing health insurance and retirement coverage that individuals can take with them from one employer to another, thus easing “job lock.” They can also introduce more competition into concentrated markets. Municipally provided broadband, for example, might provide a consumer-friendly alternative to a monopoly provider of high-cost, poor-service internet connections.

“We think it’s not only possible but critical to take a pragmatic look at what government can do well,” they write. Such practical hopefulness would be an excellent antidote to the poisonous election campaign we’re about to endure.

Distributed by The Washington Post Writers Group.

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