how our leaders learn about the public and private sectors

I believe the most important thing for citizens to know is the proper arrangement of state, market, and civil society–not only how much tax the state should collect or how it should regulate the market (although those are important questions) but also the goals and methods appropriate to each sector. For example, what is the appropriate place of competition, efficiency, innovation, openness, procedural fairness, transparency, and equality of voice in each kind of institution? These questions do not have correct answers; the objective is not consensus but a vibrant and constructive debate. Each person should have coherent, thoughtful, responsible views that guide his or her personal work as well as voting.

How can we learn what to think about the three sectors?

    1. We can replicate the view of parents and other authority figures.

    2. We can read and discuss relevant texts, such as works of politics, philosophy, history, and economics.

    3. As consumers or service-recipients, we can experience the three sectors.

    4. We can experience working in the private sector as an ordinary worker (mainly a follower of rules and instructions).

    5. We can experience working in the public or non-profit sector as an ordinary worker (mainly a follower of rules and instructions).

    6. We can experience running or helping to run a business.

    7. We can experience leading or helping to govern a public or not-for-profit entity.

All these sources of learning are appropriate, and individuals derive all kinds of unpredictable lessons from each. But each has limitations without the others. For example, if you have never tried to meet a payroll or survive in a competitive market, you could draw the conclusion that regulation was cheaper and easier than it is. By the same token, if you have never managed an organization that has an obligation to honor the voice of every member of a community, you could draw the conclusion that public sector entities should be more efficient than they are.

Because people have diverse experiences and can draw unpredictable lessons even from the same experience, I hesitate to generalize about how Americans (or any subgroup of Americans, such as elected leaders) learn about public life. But I think a few troubling trends are evident.

First, we have lost most opportunities to experience the governing of public or not-for profit entities. As I wrote on this blog several years ago:

    Elinor Ostrom calculates that in 1932, 900,000 American families had one member with formal responsibilities on a government panel or board, such as one of the 128,548 school boards then in existence. Given rotation in office, well over 1 million families had some policymaking experience in their own recent memories. Today, thanks to consolidation, there are only 15,000 school districts, an 89% decline. Meanwhile, the population has more than doubled. The result is a decline of probably 95% in all opportunities to serve in local government. The same thing has happened in high schools: a three-generation panel study run by Kent Jennings and Laura Stoker finds a 50% decline in participation in most student groups, thanks largely to the consolidation of schools. (Fewer schools mean fewer seats on student governments.)

Meanwhile, the proportion of people who say they have worked on a community problem or attended a community meeting has fallen since the 1970s.

Second, we don’t teach diverse opinions and arguments about the appropriate roles and values of the public, private, and nonprofit sectors very well in schools and colleges.

Third, the people whose dominant experiences are as ordinary workers (receivers of orders) very rarely find themselves in positions of political leadership, such as members of Congress.

Fourth, there is a stark contrast in the experience of Democratic and Republican elected leaders. Roll Call’s guide to the 112th Congress describes a newly elected Democrat, Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL). She views policy from the perspective of someone who has led or made discretionary decisions within the state sector. “An [elementary school principal] before she launched a political career, Wilson hopes to play a role in revamping the No Child Left Behind Act, which she says has hurt some students with its focus on testing and college preparedness.”

Roll Call also describes a whole batch of newly elected Republicans, almost all of whom explicitly cite their negative experiences as private sector managers who dealt with government. For example, Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Iowa), a physician in private practice, says, “Small businesses and corporations are being smothered by regulations that are keeping us from being competitive with foreign countries.” Rep. Bill Flores (R-FL) “does not have any political experience, [but] he says his business success has prepared him for service in Congress. He worked his way up from modest means to become chief executive of Phoenix Exploration, an energy company. ‘I know what it means to sign a paycheck, make a payroll, balance a budget, repay debt, acquire health care coverage,’ he says. ‘That’s what sets me apart.'”

Finally, the overall balance of the Congress has shifted decisively. The current House has 181 members who identify as business people, up from 162 four years ago. Another 148 are in law, 40 in real estate, 24 in agriculture, and 19 in medicine–all likely to be responsible for leading private enterprises. The numbers from typically public-sector careers such as education, law enforcement, and the military have either fallen (education is down by 21 percent) or remained constant.