The voices of Tax Policy Center's researchers and staff
By Bill Gale and Ben Harris
In Tuesday’s speech at the University of Chicago, former Minnesota Governor and newly announced presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty took aim at government services, announcing a new criterion for cutting federal programs:
“We can start by applying what I call ‘The Google Test.’ If you can find a good or service on the Internet, then the federal government probably doesn’t need to be doing it. The post office, the government printing office, Amtrak, Fannie and Freddie, were all built for a time in our country when the private sector did not adequately provide those products. That’s no longer the case.”
In essence, Pawlenty wants to eliminate—after a Google search—any government program that is approximately in the same industry as at least one private-sector firm. The main problem with Pawlenty’s “test” is that the government services listed as redundant—postal services, printing, rail transportation, and mortgage securitization—may not have comparable private sector counterparts. The fact that FedEx and UPS deliver mail and packages does not mean those companies provide the same services as the USPS; skeptics should go to their nearest FedEx store and try to mail a letter to a rural address for 44 cents.
Pawlenty might view Kinkos and the Government Printing Office as providing the same service—printing—but such a crude definition can be applied to any government service. Why stop at the postal service, the Government Printing Office, and Amtrak? Private schools thrive at both the K-12 and college levels; should we therefore abolish public education? Privately owned parks and country clubs provide many of the same services that national parks do. Retirees can purchase annuities in private markets, so the Google test seems to suggest abolishing Social Security. Health insurance companies provide insurance to millions of people; does that mean Pawlenty wants to zero out both Medicare and Medicaid? Some roads are built and owned by private companies; does that eliminate the need for public highways? Private military contractors and mercenaries provide the same services as the U.S. military—would the Google test therefore encourage firing DOD personnel and replacing them with private surrogates?
What’s troubling about Pawlenty’s comment is not the implied support for smaller government—certain government programs are indeed too expensive and should be scaled back. What’s troubling is the inability to recognize that most government programs are not like their “counterparts” in the private sector. Firms exist to make profits. Government programs exist to serve a greater purpose, to enhance the general well-being in ways that private sector firms cannot
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