Quick background: my company privately operates public parks, making our money solely from the entry fees voluntarily paid by visitors and campers. We don't get paid a single dollar of tax money.
A major partner of ours is the US Forest Service (USFS), which actually operates more recreation sites than any other agency in the world (the National Park Service has a higher profile and the Corps of Engineers has more visitors, but the USFS is the most ubiquitous). Despite the USFS being an early pioneer of using private companies to reduce the operating costs of parks and campgrounds, the USFS still has a large number of employees opposed to what we do. The most typical statement I hear from USFS employees that summarizes this opposition -- and it is quite common to hear it -- is that "It is wrong to make a profit on public lands."
It would be hard to understate the passion with which certain USFS employees hold to this belief. I discovered, entirely accidentally through a FOIA request my trade group had submitted to the USFS, that a Forest Supervisor in California (a fairly senior person in the USFS management structure) whom I have never met or even had a conversation with circulated emails through the agency about how evil he thought I was.
This general distaste for profit, which is seen as "dirty" in contrast to wages which are relatively "clean" (at least up to some number beyond which they are dirty again), is not limited to the USFS or even to government agencies in general, but permeates much of the public. As a result, I thought I would describe a conversation I had with a USFS manager (actually this is the merger of two conversations). The conversation below had been going on for a while discussing technical topics, and we will pick it up when the District Ranger makes the statement highlighted above (a District Ranger is the lowest level line officer in the USFS, responsible in some cases for the land management functions of an area the size of a county. I have cleaned up the text (I am sure the sentences would not be as well-formed if I had a transcript) but I think this captures the gist of it:
Ranger: I think it's wrong that you make a profit on public lands
Me: So you work for free?
Me: If you think it's wrong to make money on public lands, I assume you must volunteer, else you too would be making money on public lands
Ranger: No, of course I get paid.
Me: Well, I know what I make for profit in your District, and I have a good guess what your salary probably is, and I can assure you that you make at least twice as much as me on these public lands.
Ranger: But that is totally different.
At this point I need to help the Ranger out. He struggled to put his thoughts on this into words. I will summarize it in the nicest possible way by saying he thought that while his wage was honorable, my profit was dishonorable, or perhaps more accurately, that his wage paid by the government was consistent with the spirit of the public lands whereas my profit was not consistent
Me: I'm not sure why. My profit is similar to your wage in that it is the way I get paid for my effort on this land -- efforts that are generally entirely in harmony with yours as we are both trying to serve visitors and protect the natural resources here. But unlike your wage, my profit is also a return on the investment I have made. Every truck, uniform, and tool we use comes out of my profit, whereas you get all the tools you need paid for by your employer above and beyond your salary. Further, your salary is virtually guaranteed to you, short of some staggering malfeasance. Even if you do a bad job you likely would just get shunted to a less interesting staff position at the same salary, rather than fired. On the other hand if I do a bad job, or if one of my employees slips up, or even if some absolutely random occurrence entirely outside my control occurs (like, say, a flood that closes our operations) my profit can completely evaporate, or even turn into a loss. So like you, I get paid for my efforts here on public lands, but I have to take risk and make investments that aren't required of you. So what about that makes my profit less honorable than your wage?
Ranger: Working on public lands should be a public service, not for profit
Me: Well, I think you are starting to make the argument again that you should be volunteering and not taking a salary. But leaving that aside, why is profit inconsistent with service to the public? My company serves over 2 million visitors a year, and 99.9% give us the highest marks for our service. And for the few that don't, and complain about a bad experience, every one of those complaints comes to my desk and I personally investigate them. Do you do the same?
Why do I make such an effort? Part of it is pride, but part is because I understand that my margins are so narrow, if even 5% of those visitors don't come back next year -- because they had a bad time or they saw a bad review online -- I will make no money. Those 2 million people vote with their feet every year on whether they think I am adequately serving the public, and their votes directly affect how much money I make. Do you have that sort of accountability for your public service?
Postscript: Interestingly, though perhaps not surprisingly, the government ranger did not bring up what I would consider the most hard-hitting challenge: How do we know your profits are not just the rents from a corrupt, cronyist government contracting process. Two things let me sleep well at night on this question. The first is that I know what lobbying I do and political connections I have (zero on both) so I am fully confident I can't be benefiting from cronyism in the competitive bid process for these concession contracts. Of course, you don't know that and if our positions were reversed, I am pretty sure I would be skeptical of you.
So the other fact I have in my favor, which is provable to all, is that the recreation areas we operate are run with far lower costs and a demonstrably higher level of service than the vast majority of recreation areas run by the government itself. So while I can't prove I didn't pull some insider connections to get the work, I can prove the public is far better off with the operation of these parks in private hands.