The Fallacy of the Public Sector

We have heard a great deal of the “public sector,” and solemn discussions abound through the land on whether or not the public sector should be increased vis-a-vis the “private sector.” The very terminology is redolent of pure science, and indeed, it emerges from the supposedly scientific, if rather grubby, world of “national income statistics.” But the concept is hardly wertfrei; in fact, it is fraught with grave and questionable implications.

In the first place, we may ask, “public sector” of what? Of something called the “national product.” But note the hidden assumptions: that the national product is something like a pie, consisting of several “sectors,” and that these sectors, public and private alike, are added to make the product of the economy as a whole. In this way, the assumption is smuggled into the analysis that the public and private sectors are equally productive, equally important and on an equal footing altogether, and that “our” deciding on the proportions of public to private sector is about as innocuous as any individual’s decision on whether to eat cake or ice cream. The State is considered to be an amiable service agency, somewhat akin to the corner grocer, or rather, to the neighborhood lodge, in which “we” get together to decide how much “our government” should do for (or to) us. Even those neoclassical economists who tend to favor the free market and free society often regard the State as a generally inefficient, but still amiable, organ of social service, mechanically registering “our” values and decisions.

One would not think it difficult for scholars and laymen alike to grasp the fact that government is not like the Rotarians or the Elks, that it differs profoundly from all other organs and institutions in society, namely, that it lives and acquires its revenues by coercion and not by voluntary payment. The late Joseph Schumpeter was never more astute than when he wrote, “The theory which construes taxes on the analogy of club dues or of the purchase of the services of, say, a doctor only proves how far removed this part of the social sciences is from scientific habits of mind.”

Apart from the public sector, what constitutes the productivity of the “private sector” of the economy? The productivity of the private sector does not stem from the fact that people are rushing around doing “something,” anything, with their resources; it consists in the fact that they are using these resources to satisfy the needs and desires of the consumers. Businessmen and other producers direct their energies, on the free market, to producing those products that will be most rewarded by the consumers, and the sale of these products may, therefore, roughly “measure” the importance that the consumers place upon them. If millions of people bend their energies to producing horses-and-buggies, they will, in this day and age, not be able to sell them, and hence, the productivity of their output will be virtually zero. On the other hand, if a few million dollars are spent in a given year on Product X, then statisticians may well judge that these millions constitute the productive output of the X-part of the “private sector” of the economy.

One of the most important features of our economic resources is their scarcity: land, labor and capital-goods factors are all scarce, and may all be put to various possible uses. The free market uses them “productively” because the producers are guided, on the market, to produce what the consumers most need: automobiles, for example, rather than buggies. Therefore, while the statistics of the total output of the private sector seem to be a mere adding of numbers, or counting units of output, the measures of output actually involve the important qualitative decision of considering as “product” what the consumers are willing to buy. A million automobiles, sold on the market, are productive because the consumers so considered them; a million buggies, remaining unsold, would not have been “product” because the consumers would have passed them by.

Suppose now that into this idyll of free exchange enters the long arm of government. The government, for some reasons of its own, decides to ban automobiles altogether (perhaps because the many tailfins offend the aesthetic sensibilities of the rulers) and to compel the auto companies to produce the equivalent in buggies instead. Under such a strict regimen, the consumers would be, in a sense, compelled to purchase buggies, because no cars would be permitted. However, in this case, the statistician would surely be purblind if he blithely and simply recorded the buggies as being just as “productive” as the previous automobiles. To call them equally productive would be a mockery; in fact, given plausible conditions, the “national product” totals might not even show a statistical decline, when they had actually fallen drastically.

And yet the highly touted “public sector” is in even worse straits than the buggies of our hypothetical example. For most of the resources consumed by the maw of government have not even been seen, much less used, by the consumers, who were at least allowed to ride in their buggies. In the private sector, a firm’s productivity is gauged by how much the consumers voluntarily spend on its product. But in the public sector, the government’s “productivity” is measured — mirabile dictu — by how much it spends! Early in their construction of national-product statistics, the statisticians were confronted with the fact that the government, unique among individuals and firms, could not have its activities gauged by the voluntary payments of the public — because there were little or none of such payments. Assuming, without any proof, that government must be as productive as anything else, they then settled upon its expenditures as a gauge of its productivity. In this way, not only are government expenditures just as useful as private, but all the government needs to do in order to increase its “productivity” is to add a large chunk to its bureaucracy. Hire more bureaucrats and see the productivity of the public sector rise! Here, indeed, is an easy and happy form of social magic for our bemused citizens.

The truth is exactly the reverse of the common assumptions. Far from adding cozily to the private sector, the public sector can only feed off the private sector; it necessarily lives parasitically upon the private economy. But this means that the productive resources of society — far from satisfying the wants of consumers — are now directed, by compulsion, awayfrom these wants and needs. The consumers are deliberately thwarted, and the resources of the economy diverted from them to those activities desired by the parasitic bureaucracy and politicians. In many cases, the private consumers obtain nothing at all, except perhaps propaganda beamed to them at their own expense. In other cases, the consumers receive something far down on their list of priorities — like the buggies of our example. In either case, it becomes evident that the “public sector” is actually anti-productive — that it subtracts from, rather than adds to, the private sector of the economy. For the public sector lives by continuous attack on the very criterion that is used to gauge productivity: the voluntary purchases of consumers.

We may gauge the fiscal impact of government on the private sector by subtracting government expenditures from the national product. For government payments to its own bureaucracy are hardly additions to production; and government absorption of economic resources takes them out of the productive sphere. This gauge, of course, is only fiscal; it does not begin to measure the anti-productive impact of various government regulations, which cripple production and exchange in other ways than absorbing resources. It also does not dispose of numerous other fallacies of the national product statistics. But at least it removes such common myths as the idea that the productive output of the American economy increased during World War II. Subtract the government deficit instead of add it, and we see that the real productivity of the economy declined, as we would rationally expect during a war.

But how is it that only government agencies clamor for more money and denounce the citizens for reluctance to supply more? Why do we never have the private-enterprise equivalents of traffic jams (which occur on government streets), mismanaged schools, water shortages and so on? The reason is that private firms acquire the money that they deserve from two sources: voluntary payment for the services by consumers, and voluntary investment by investors in expectation of consumer demand.

If there is an increased demand for a privately owned good, consumers pay more for the product, and investors invest more in its supply, thus, “clearing the market” to everyone’s satisfaction. If there is an increased demand for a publicly owned good (water, streets, subway and so on), all we hear is annoyance at the consumer for wasting precious resources, coupled with annoyance at the taxpayer for balking at a higher tax load.

Enterprise makes it its business to court the consumer and to satisfy his most urgent demands; government agencies denounce the consumer as a troublesome user of their resources. Only a government, for example, would look fondly upon the prohibition of private cars as a “solution” for the problem of congested streets. Government’s numerous “free” services, moreover, create permanent excess demand over supply and therefore permanent “shortages” of the product. Government, in short, acquiring its revenue by coerced confiscation rather than by voluntary investment and consumption, is not and cannot be run like a business. Its inherent gross inefficiencies, the impossibility for it to clear the market, will insure its being a mare’s nest of trouble on the economic scene.

In former times, the inherent mismanagement of government was generally considered a good argument for keeping as many things as possible out of government hands. After all, when one has invested in a losing proposition, one tries to refrain from pouring good money after bad.

Most economists have two basic arguments on behalf of the public sector, which we may only consider very briefly here. One is the problem of “external benefits.” A and B often benefit, it is held, if they can force C into doing something. Much can be said in criticism of this doctrine, but suffice it to say here that any argument proclaiming the right and goodness of, say, three neighbors, who yearn to form a string quartet, forcing a fourth neighbor at bayonet point to learn and play the viola, is hardly deserving of sober comment.

The second argument is more substantial: Stripped of technical jargon, it states that some essential services simply cannot be supplied by the private sphere, and that, therefore, government supply of these services is necessary. And yet every single one of the services supplied by government has been, in the past, successfully furnished by private enterprise. The bland assertion that private citizens cannot possibly supply these goods is never bolstered, in the works of these economists, by any proof whatsoever. How is it, for example, that economists, so often given to pragmatic or utilitarian solutions, do not call for social “experiments” in this direction? Why must political experiments always be in the direction of more government? Why not give the free market a county or even a state or two, and see what it can accomplish?


Murray N. Rothbard