We were out at Ocean Beach yesterday. Beautiful weather. Lots of families and tourists out exploring the ruins of the Sutro Baths. As part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the ruins are affected by the shutdown, but they’re open. Yesterday visitors kept edging past each other on the uneven tops of those old masonry pool walls. It made me nervous: no handrails, and in places those narrow walking surfaces run between open box-sided pits full of rain and salt water. No rangers in sight. But the gift and coffee shop was open at the top of the old cement stairs — the nonprofit Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy runs it.
As Sarah Kendzior has argued, the shutdown serves Republican privatization goals. The longer this goes on, the more we’ll substitute private systems for public ones. Fewer public entitlements could mean more privately invented rules about who counts as a member of society — and what it means to be left out. More latitude for discrimination and corruption. Less traction for assertions of rights — to benefits, to services, to equal protection of the laws.
So if the shutdown drags on, and charities start to fill in for more governmental functions, the charities in turn have some thinking to do about rights and governance. Morally at least, do nonprofits that are picking up the slack in a shutdown owe the public as much transparency, opportunity to share in decisions, and procedural evenhandedness as the public entities would provide if able to do so — or as much as the nonprofits themselves would have to provide if they were public contractors?
Nonprofit governance may not matter a lot when the privatized public function consists of running a park’s gift shop. But it matters when nonprofits perform public functions like subsidizing rent or healthcare. What happens when a nonprofit rejects a claim or can’t afford to pay one? Should there be a review or appeal process echoing what the public entity would provide for an entitlement? More broadly, what should be the role of civil society in maintaining democratic ideas and habits?
Do these questions seem impractical just now? Should they?