Mike Konczal in Boston Review (image by Jason Hales):
Adam Smith was not the first, but he was certainly one of the most eloquent defenders of justice delivered according to the profit motive. In The Wealth of Nations, he wrote that since courts could charge fees for conducting a trial, each court would endeavor, “by superior dispatch and impartiality, to draw to itself as many causes as it could.” Competition meant a judge would try “to give, in his own court, the speediest and most effectual remedy which the law would admit, for every sort of injustice.” Left unsaid is what this system does to those who can’t afford to pay up.
Our government is being remade in this mold—the mold of a business. The past thirty years have seen massive, outright privatization of government services. Meanwhile the logic of business, competition, and the profit motive has been introduced into what remains.
But for those with a long enough historical memory, this is nothing new. Through the first half of our country’s history, public officials were paid according to the profit motive, and it was only through the failures of that system that a fragile accountability was put into place during the Progressive Era. One of the key sources of this accountability was the establishment of salaries for public officials who previously had been paid on commission.
As this professionalized system is dismantled, once-antique notions are becoming relevant again. Consider merit pay schemes whereby teachers are now meant to compete with each other for bonuses. This mirrors the 1770 Maryland assembly’s argument that public officials “would not perform their duties with as much diligence when paid a fixed salary as when paid for each particular service.” And note that the criminal justice system now profits from forfeiture of property and court fees levied on offenders, recalling Thomas Brackett Reed, the House Republican leader who, in 1887, argued, “In order to bring your criminals against the United States laws to detection” you “need to have the officials stimulated by a similar self-interest to that which excites and supports and sustains the criminal.”
The dissolution of the old system, and its return with a vengeance, are the subjects of three recent books on the everyday lives of our front-line public employees.