| March 15, 2012

Free's a crowd

It’s hard to compete with “free.” Unfortunately, Oklahoma’s private-sector enterprises—both for-profit and not-for-profit—are forced to do so on a regular basis.

When the government steps in to do something for “free,” it often crowds out the private sector. I have pointed out how this happens in the areas of health insurance and education, for instance, and new examples continue to present themselves. “In the past six months, two child-care programs in or near downtown Tulsa have closed, leaving few options for parents working nearby,” Sara Plummer reported December 29 in the Tulsa World.

Trinity Episcopal Day School, which had operated in downtown Tulsa for more than 30 years, closed in July, and in October the YWCA Tulsa announced that it was eliminating its child-care programs. …

With public schools offering prekindergarten and 4-year-old programs, more parents are choosing to enroll their children in public school instead of private child-development centers, [Karen Smith, executive director of the Child Care Resource Center of Tulsa County] said. …

“It’s certainly a sad day for our community. We lost a great tradition in Trinity and quality care at the YWCA,” [Debbi Guilfoyle, director of the Crosstown Learning Center] said. “The impact of public prekindergarten has made a huge impact on early care and child centers. It’s hard to compete with free.”

Last week in The Oklahoman, Juliana Keeping reported that Villa Teresa Catholic School in Oklahoma City, which serves some 230 children from age 2 through fourth grade, is closing its doors after nearly eight decades. Doubtless it is being crowded out in part by government-operated schools, perhaps even charter schools. (I’m a big fan of KIPP and other excellent charter schools, but it’s worth remembering that they are in fact government schools.)

Sometimes government doesn’t provide a service for “free,” but rather operates enterprises that compete directly with private-sector enterprises. OCPA has pointed out how this happens in the printing industry, for example. And in an excellent column which appeared earlier this year in The Oklahoman, George Basore, the president and owner of Oklahoma City-based Scott Rice, an office furniture supplier, explained the challenges faced by Oklahoma’s private-sector furniture businesses.

Unfortunately, Oklahoma Corrections Industries, subsidized by Oklahoma taxpayers, is allowed to unfairly compete against Oklahoma-owned private businesses. There are many Oklahoma companies that buy, sell, and service U.S. manufactured office furniture; we should not have to compete with a government-run state agency using taxpayer dollars to make furniture.

Companies like mine are doing everything possible to remain competitive in a global marketplace and we don’t have the luxury of a taxpayer-financed financial advantage.

The bottom line is this: Government exists to secure our rights to life, liberty, and property. It does not exist for the purpose of operating enterprises that compete with private businesses. State lawmakers should apply the “Yellow Pages test”: If it’s in the Yellow Pages, lawmakers should ask themselves if government needs to be involved at all.

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