A couple of months ago, at the height of the Affordable Care Act’s online difficulties, one of the more common questions related to the nature of government itself: if online commerce works wonderfully in the private sector, why did healthcare.gov fail so severely, at least initially, in the public sector?
Even the Obama administration bought into the underlying argument, with HHS boasting that officials have acted with “private-sector speed and focus” and operated with “private-sector velocity and effectiveness.”
The assumptions about businesses’ inherent efficacy are dubious for a variety of reasons – not the least of which is the fact that it was private-sector contractors that helped create the health care website’s troubles in the first place – but they look especially out of place now. Some of the same companies that were held out as models of efficiency and productivity – Amazon.com, UPS, Wal-Mart, FedEx, etc. – struggled badly through the holidays and fell far short of consumers’ expectations when it came to delivering gifts in time for Christmas.
It’s hard to blame Alec MacGillis for celebrating the “comeuppance for private-sector triumphalists.”
There’s little schadenfreude to be had in people being left empty-handed of presents to give their family and friends, or in underpaid, overworked warehouse employees and drivers rushing unsuccessfully to get the goods to their destinations on time. And as my colleague Jonathan Cohn noted recently, the comparison between healthcare.gov and Amazon was deeply flawed from the outset.
But still, the Great Christmas Delivery Screwup of 2013 should inject a bit of perspective and humility into the ranks of the loudest private-sector champions. The fact is, the cliches are true: life is complicated, stuff happens and sometimes things don’t work out as planned. As amazing and wonderful as technology is, there are still limits to what is possible in narrow windows of time – sometimes you just need a few more weeks to get the complex new health insurance Web site for 36 states working properly, or you just run out of hours to beat Santa to the house – to millions and millions of houses. (And sometimes it’s not just the government web site that struggles with keeping personal information secure, but also one of the largest retailers in the country, in a breach far wider and more potentially damaging than anything that has happened with healthcare.gov.)
This is no doubt inconvenient for those who insist that free-market forces make the private sector work successfully and necessarily create public-sector inefficiencies, but MacGillis’ point is obviously sound. To assume that government can’t be proficient and effective is wrong, as is the notion that the free hand always guides businesses perfectly.