The standard conservative line is that governments are bureaucratic and unresponsive while privately held companies are innovative and responsive. There was never any theory to explain why that would be. And in my experience, it isn’t true. It’s just a tired talking point of right wingers who hate the government.
I grew up in small businesses. My parents pretty much never had regular jobs. And it is a freewheeling lifestyle. And a stressful one. So I have a certain fondness for people who choose that path in life. They are often quite innovative in their ways. As a result, I was really interested to read Martin Longman a couple of weeks ago, Franchisees Should Unionize to Raise Wages. It tells the story of the “typical franchisor/franchisee relationship.” And it ain’t pretty.
People who own a McDonald’s franchise, for example, have very little control over costs. They can’t find a cheaper supplier of English muffins, for example. They are required by law (Court ruling!) to buy them from McDonald’s. What’s more, they have almost no control on what they charge for food. So if employees got a raise, the money would come only out of their profits. They are forbidden to “innovate.”
What really stands out to me in this story is just how bureaucratic the franchise corporations are. The reason is that according to conservatives, there are two worlds: the world of the bureaucratic government and the world of the innovative private sector. But the truth is far more murky. The government is very often incredibly innovative. It still boggles my mind how much the DMV has changed from the early 1970s to today. But for conservatives, it is always the early 1970s. You would think they’d never had to register a new car.
On the flip side of things is that the corporate world is filled with bureaucracy. We have the example of the franchises above. But my personal favorite example is my interaction with the phone company. At the end of the calls, the tech people are forced to recite the tired, “We’re glad you have chosen AT&T…” Regardless of how personable or rude the agent was, they always turn into a corporate automaton at the end of the call. That’s corporate think for you.
Now I know that there are reasons for all this. In the McDonald’s case, the company wants customers to have the same experience at a restaurant in San Francisco as they do in Lovett. And AT&T is trying to push an image of themselves in their support calls. In both cases, it’s about branding. But it’s a rigid form of branding. Certainly third party vendors could provide exactly the right kind of muffins for the franchisees. Support personnel could push the company line in a way that was specific to them rather than reading a prepared statement.
Institutions of all kinds have to balance the power of individual initiative with the desire to provide a unified customer experience. There is nothing that stops the government from doing this well. And there is nothing that dictates the private companies will do it well. Actual experience shows this. But conservatives continue to push this tired line that the private sector is always innovating. If there’s one thing the last four decades have shown, it is that as companies get bigger and customers have fewer choices, they become far more bureaucratic and less accountable than government agencies.