David A. Graham argues that firms that make charitable contributions create long-term problems.

For those who haven’t been paying attention to the news lately, the government of Flint, Michigan totally messed up, selling lead-laced water to Flint residents for 16 months, despite repeated objections from local residents complaining about the water. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the federal government’s Environmental Protection Agency messed up too. For more details see Shikha Dalmia, “Flint’s Water crisis isn’t a failure of austerity. It’s a failure of government.”

In a recent article at The Atlantic titled “The Private Sector Is Now Providing Basic Services to Flint,” David A. Graham writes:

A coalition of some of America’s biggest companies is organizing a trucklift for Flint, promising to deliver 6.5 million bottles of water to the city in order to provide clean drinking water for schoolchildren through 2016. Walmart, Coca-Cola, Nestlé, and PepsiCo say they will deliver 6.5 million bottles to Flint, enough for the city’s 10,000 students.

Graham admits that the generosity shown by Walmart, Coca-Cola, Nestlé, and PepsiCo in donating water to schools in Flint, Michigan is good in the short run.

He also admits the problems with government, writing:

Failures of government and the effective disenfranchisement of Flint voters produced the crisis

But he has a problem with it in the long run. As Mona Lisa Vito asks Vinny Gambini in My Cousin Vinny, after she helps him win a case: “So what’s your [his] problem?”

Graham’s problem is much like Vinny’s, who “wanted to win [his] first case without any help from anybody.” Graham writes:

But the big water donation might raise even more uncomfortable questions. Walmart, Coca-Cola, Nestlé, and Pepsi aren’t just charitable organizations that might have their own ideologies. They’re for-profit companies. And by providing water to the public schools for the remainder of the year, the four companies have effectively supplanted the local water authorities and made themselves an indispensable public utility, but without any amount of public regulation or local accountability. Many people in Flint may want government to work better, but with sufficient donations, they may find that the private sector has supplanted many of government’s functions altogether.

This is quite striking. Graham looks at government institutions straight in the eye and admits that they have failed. He also admits that private charity has succeeded. But they aren’t regulated. OMG. He doesn’t argue that the private firms are giving poisoned water, the way the government did. (I correct myself: the government didn’t give poisoned water; it sold poisoned water, and is insisting that Flint residents keep paying for it.) He also worries that the private businesses aren’t accountable. Really? So Graham thinks that if somehow the water they gave ended up poisoning people, they wouldn’t be liable? Isn’t he confusing private firms with government monopolies?

HT@ Robby Soave.