Private Vices and Public Benefits

by Fred Schwarz

Our stalwart libertarian colleague Charlie Cooke, commenting on the shocking scandal of the NRA’s compiling a database on its members, tweets: “I’m still routinely surprised at the frequency with which the distinction between public and private, vital for all politics, is ignored.” To which I might add: And when the Left does make that distinction, they infallibly get it backwards.

Big-government philosophy can be summed up like this: Private entities (big corporations, wealthy plutocrats, fanatical organizations) are powerful, unaccountable, and purely self-interested. They exploit and manipulate us all, and our only recourse is to put a tight regulatory rein on them. The government, by contrast, is organized specifically for the common benefit and is directly accountable to the voters. Therefore: Public good, private bad.

A conservative would reply: A private entity cannot compel me to do anything, whereas the government can make me do whatever it wishes. By merely passing a law (or ignoring one) or issuing a ukase, it can take my money, make me buy things, or restrict my freedom in hundreds of ways. If I don’t play along, it can put me in prison. The worst McDonald’s can do is tempt me with cheap food.

Moreover, if I dislike a private entity’s behavior, I can simply ignore its appeals and choose not to do business with it. But disentangling the various functions of a hydra-headed government, and changing or eliminating the ones that need it, takes enormous amounts of time and effort, if it can be done at all (not to mention the problems of corruption, self-interest, or excessive zeal on the part of government agents). Therefore: Private good, public bad (except on a strictly defined set of functions).

So from the liberal point of view, a government database on firearms owners is better than a private one, since we know they’ll only use it to weed out future mass murderers and keep those nasty militias in check, whereas the NRA will use its private database to promote those things. Simple, really . . .