The recent decision by South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem to accept private funding from Willis Johnson, a major Republican donor, to send her state’s National Guard to the Mexican border has been called unprecedented, a conflict of interest, an abuse of public power for personal political gain, an outsourcing and privatization of national security, an assault on the authority and legitimacy of the federal government, and a reflection of, as the journalist Paul Waldman put it in The Washington Post, “some people’s rejection of the idea that existing rules and structures have to be considered legitimate at all.”
It is all of those things. And it may be one other thing too: the future.
What Noem and Johnson are doing destroys modern boundaries between public and private, political and personal, and governmental and commercial. Taking a longer view, though, this public-private arrangement isn’t all that novel: Everything that has been criticized about it has been standard practice in the past. More significantly, it represents the direction in which things are headed.
In fact, for a long time now, the private sector (and other nongovernmental entities) has assumed functions that Americans have traditionally thought of as governmental. Large parts of the financial-regulatory system—the creation of money, the rating of the financial instruments on which the entire market depends (sometimes catastrophically, as with the Great Recession)—have been jobbed out to private entities since at least the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Many other regulatory functions, such as annual car inspections, are outsourced to private providers, and have been for a long time. For centuries, mail delivery, one of the most common public functions, has gone through periods of privatization, renationalization, and back again repeatedly. And large swaths of the social safety net are in the hands of nongovernmental entities, some of which are for-profit.
But national security itself can’t be privatized or outsourced, can it? As a practical matter, it in fact can be and it has been. Mercenaries are frequently referred to as the world’s second-oldest profession, and significant portions of the national-security apparatus, including those that collect and analyze intelligence as well as those that imprison and interrogate foreigners, have been outsourced under recent administrations. Some countries have even outsourced the conduct of their foreign policy and national defense to other countries. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the British and Dutch outsourced governing much of the globe to private corporations, such as the famous East India, West India, and Hudson’s Bay Companies (the latter still exists as a department store). In medieval times, many central national authorities, usually kings, were unable to draw on a standing army, and had to count on individual nobles to fund and donate men-at-arms to send across borders to fight wars—donors not all that different in effect from Willis Johnson.
Despite these deep historical precedents, Americans—going back to the Framers—have never much liked the idea of individuals being able to dictate, via subsidy, the government’s priorities, especially the country’s defense. As a result, Noem’s move has been heavily criticized for literally selling government functions and policies.
But the fact is that, even today, many government priorities and policies are chosen by those willing to pay for them, and though this was more common in premodern times, it’s becoming common again now. Numerous U.S. governments have set up or worked with private foundations for the purpose of receiving donations, usually from other charitable foundations but also from individuals, for specific public initiatives. Various special-purpose districts in this country are funded by those interested in or affected by their purposes. Many governments allow for tax “check off” provisions in which individuals decide for themselves whether and to what extent certain public programs—particularly, at the federal level, campaign finance—get funded. “Voting” for public policies through money rather than votes, in short, is a common practice.
Most important today, neither the outsourcing of government functions to private entities, nor private individuals paying to channel public endeavors in a direction they favor, can be dismissed as a predilection of only conservatives and the right. Many public-policy innovations popular on the left involve similar phenomena.
For example, progressives have been pushing “social-impact bonds” for years as a way to increase the funding for social services such as job-training programs, offender-reentry efforts, and child care. What this funding strategy involves is, in policy-speak, shifting “policy risk” away from governments and taxpayers—an anodyne way of saying that governments get out of bearing the responsibility for having bad ideas or spending money on programs that don’t pan out. Instead, some private backer—usually a foundation, but sometimes a wealthy individual—decides to take a gamble as to whether a particular approach to social services will produce some desired result (lower unemployment, better school performance, fewer homeless people). If the policy turns out to be a dud, costing money but not generating results, the investor takes the hit, not the taxpayers. But, conversely, if the policy works, the public still receives the diffuse benefits of, say, reduced unemployment and its social implications—but the investors, not the government, reap the direct financial gain.
Similarly, the rash of municipal experiments across the country right now involving a basic or guaranteed income is also being funded by private foundations, not by governments and taxpayers. Private companies are now being founded to finance such efforts through not just charities but also high-wealth (and even average-wealth) individual investors.
Progressives like this shift of financial risk to, and the infusion of cash from, nongovernmental actors, which they hope will fuel expansion of such public priorities. But it is hard to distinguish this from what Noem and Johnson are doing in putting the choice and funding of state programs at the discretion of private funders, except that one involves funding guns and the other butter.
This is not to say that Governor Noem’s scheme is unproblematic. Not only is this specific instance problematic, but so is everything about the larger shift in governance functions that it both portends and reflects, which is perhaps why it is unusually unsettling.
What Noem and others are doing is undermining the nature of national authority, and with it the nature of government generally, because they don’t like the direction in which the majority of the country is going. This is potentially destructive to numerous values—including democratic legitimacy, the supremacy of federal (over local) authority, and how we define and police our borders—that have made our world, and this country, what it is today.
But all of this is a symptom, not the cause. Those values are under assault because of changes in technology (such as the advent of the internet, social media, and virtual reality), which then drive changes in society and the economy, which are, in turn, forcing changes in virtually every industry, service, and business on Earth. Though people generally don’t think of it this way, government is simply one of those industries undergoing such changes.
In many ways, the digital age has ushered in a world where the borders between places—and between every long-standing binary of thought—matter less. And there is much more like Noem’s National Guard deployment coming.