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.