David Goldman, File, Associated Press
Washington no longer owns any of General Motors, but has the auto giant been saved, or merely kept alive a little longer?

Five years after the government bought a majority interest in General Motors and guided it through an expedited bankruptcy proceeding, the automaker once again is totally in private hands. The government has sold its last shares, absorbing a $10.5 billion loss, which is to say, a loss with your money.

But the debate over whether the government was right to bailout out GM and Chrysler will continue for some time. The only question that may be resolved definitively is whether government ownership allowed the company to restructure itself in a way that makes it competitive in the global market. That will become evident in the next few years as consumers react to what GM offers and the company’s business structure reacts to its revenue stream.

The one thing that never can be known is what would have happened without a bailout. Enough time has elapsed that it may be necessary to remind readers that the auto bailout began under the leadership of President George W. Bush. Barack Obama merely carried it out and enlarged it a bit.

Back in 2008, the economy was in a desperate situation, teetering on the edge of something no one could predict with certainty but that many experts suspected would be very bad unless action was taken. If GM and Chrysler were to go bankrupt, liquidate and cease to exist, it would have rippled unemployment up and down auto supply chains all the way to local dealerships.

Under the worst scenarios presented, unemployment would have reached unprecedented levels, the economy would have fallen into depression and people might have begun rioting in the streets.

But under other theories, none of that would have happened. As Michael LaFaive of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy told the Detroit Free Press, other automakers would have bought GM and Chrysler’s assets at a huge discount “which they (could) re-employ elsewhere … and cars get made more efficiently and inexpensively.”

In truth, 2008 presented such an economic anomaly, with frightening disruptions already occurring in the financial and real estate sectors, that few people, including free-market conservatives in Congress, wanted to take the chance of doing nothing.

The administration says the $10.5 billion loss created 370,000 jobs. An independent study by the Center for Automotive Research, cited by the Detroit Free Press, estimates that without the bailout another 4.1 million jobs would have been lost in 2009 and ’10, leading to $105 billion in lost taxes, not to mention the subsequent strain on unemployment funds and food stamps.

Those are interesting numbers, but no one knows for sure. And so the questions linger.

Will the bailout lead U.S. auto executives to engage in risky behavior because the government has demonstrated their companies are too big to fail? Has leadership during the restructuring period been more concerned with government’s priorities than with what consumers want in a car?

Now that it is free from government ownership, GM once again can attract executive leadership with the sort of outlandish salaries common in industry but unpopular with average people. The question is whether the lack of such leadership during restructuring has hindered and hurt the company.

The coming years will tell whether GM and Chrysler have been saved or merely kept alive a little longer.