Government vs. private sector: Oxford-style debate at the IOP

“Fellow fans of the private sector– well you must be, you’re here at the University of Chicago, a private university.”

By Zeke Gillman

The Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. and The Weekly Standard editor William Kristol debated the level of involvement and direction of the U.S. government in an event Wednesday hosted by the Institute of Politics (IOP) at the School of Social Service Administration.

In a change from most IOP events, the debate was conducted in Oxford style, where debaters are introduced to a given statement and pronounce their position with respect to that statement as the audience observes and determines the winner. Moderator and IOP Director Steve Edwards introduced the statement: “Anything the government does, the private sector can do better.” He asked the 85-member audience to conduct a pre-debate vote on the motion through, a website that provides independent voting services. In the audience, 49 members voted in favor of the proposition, while 16 voted “no.”

Kristol opened by emphasizing the need for the private sector and its significance to the everyday American. “Fellow fans of the private sector—well you must be, you’re here at the University of Chicago, a private university,” he said. “You’re going to go back from here, maybe have a bite on the way home at a private…restaurant, go to your private apartment…and many of you probably have private cars…so I just assume that everyone here is a fan of the private sector.”

“There is a simple case for government. So the fundamental case for me is a case for liberty, a case for preventing tyranny,” Kristol added, stating that he is in favor of a strong government as the Founding Fathers stressed a “limited and energetic government” in the Federalist Papers. “ is precisely the fact that government has become so unlimited that has made ineffective.”

Dionne argued the advantages of a more involved and larger government. He gave a brief history lesson on the various programs and services that government has afforded the American people from Henry Clay’s American System to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s  Social Security Act to Lyndon B. Johnon’s Great Society.

“At the most basic level, without government there is no enforcement of contracts, without government there’s no protection against force and fraud,” he said. He quoted former Defense Secretary William Cohen, who thought, “‘Government is the enemy until you need a friend’…and we need an energetic government because it helps the private sector and helps all of us and it actually helps people when they need a friend.” 

Each continued to debate the proper extent of the U.S. federal government, though both speakers completely rejected Edwards’ opening proposition. “None of us can possibly believe that proposition, but the question is our attitude towards government,” Dionne said. Kristol agreed, calling the sentiment “cartoonish.”

In their rebuttals, Dionne and Kristol also touched on ways the government can improve. Dionne stressed the importance of experimentation in government, citing the space that businesses in the private sector have for innovation and testing new ideas. Kristol agreed on the benefits of government experimentation, but argued that the present government structure is constricted by too many bureaucratic practices. In their closing remarks, Dionne stressed the need for government, while Kristol continued to underline the beneficial power of markets and the private sector.

Once each concluded, Edwards asked the audience to again vote on the proposition. The results were almost a complete reversal of the pre-debate results, and Dionne won the audience over with 42 people voting in his favor over the 22 who voted for Kristol. After the announcement Kristol congratulated “E.J. on his hard-earned victory.”’