Acceptable Incrementalism

I wouldn’t oppose all the measures Randal O’Toole describes in his comment, “Making Incrementalism Work.” Prohibiting a state from diverting fuel tax revenue to general purposes and general revenue to road maintenance and construction would be fine with me. Whether it would lead to privatization of roads is another question. I suspect that special interests would find myriad ways to prevent that, but I see no harm in trying. If gradualism takes the form of tying the politicians’ hands, bring it on! So I guess you can say I don’t oppose all incrementalism, but I never said I did. See my original essay. What I said was that when “steps in the right direction” are proposed, we advocates of stigmergy want to know that the direction is indeed right.

About abolitionism and slavery: As O’Toole notes, slavery might have eventually vanished had the federal government been allowed to buy slaves’ freedom in the 1820s. I’m not sure that qualifies as incrementalism (though it would have been a compromise), since presumably all the slaves might have been freed that way at once. But we should not assume the only alternative to that program was war. (For one thing, Lincoln did not go to war to free the slaves.)

By the way, I would have happily backed one particular incremental step toward ending slavery: the internalization of enforcement costs. As Jeffrey Rogers Hummel emphasizes, “Government interventions that reinforced chattel slavery in the American South … included compulsory slave patrols, fugitive slave laws, laws against educating slaves, and legal disabilities on freed slaves… . These features socialized the enforcement costs of slave labor… .” Removing the subsidies to slaveholders would indeed have been a step in the right direction. And William Lloyd Garrison himself presumably would have approved. As he wrote in The Liberator (1831), “Urge immediate abolition as earnestly as we may, it will alas! be gradual abolition in the end. We have never said that slavery would be overthrown by a single blow; that it ought to be we shall always contend.”

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • From State to Society by Sheldon Richman

    In a sweeping essay, Sheldon Richman explains why private property and free competition are superior to state-provided goods and services. He warns against granting “private” corporate monopolies, which are not true privatizations, but act as arms of the state. He adds that for many state activities, the best way to privatize is not to provide the service at all — as in the case of punishing victimless crimes, which no one should do. For legitimate services, he recommends a “homesteading” approach, in which stakeholders in a public service, such as a school, would receive shares in a new, independent corporation.

Response Essays

  • The Incremental Approach to Privatization by Leonard Gilroy

    Leonard Gilroy argues for the benefits of incremental privatization. The general public, he writes, must still be convinced that private entities can perform many of the services that have for a long time been provided by monopoly government entities. To win them over, demonstrations will be necessary, and these should be incremental in nature. Gilroy cites several such attempts and argues that they have successfully built support for the idea of privatization.

  • Nuanced Privatization by Dru Stevenson

    Professor Stevenson agrees that much so-called privatization does not deserve the name. It both fails to shrink the government and also creates new constituencies for government spending–the private firms who win lucrative contracts. That said, we must think very carefully about what a more privatized world would look like, and whether we would really prefer it in all cases. Are we comfortable, for example, with the largely religious education system that would likely replace state-run schools?

  • Paying Attention to Incentives by Randal O'Toole

    Randal O’Toole argues that the difference between success and failure in privatization is primarily a matter of incentives. He cites examples of failed incentive structures, like British Rail and New Zealand’s fishing quota system, as well as some successes: Denver’s Regional Transit District has contracted bus service that runs for half the cost of its government-operated lines, and Atlantic City has an entirely private bus fleet.

The Conversation