How Privatizing Government Shovels Cash to Parasitic Corporations and Undermines Democracy
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This story was originally published at Salon.
The 99 Percent Plan is a joint Roosevelt Institute-Salon series that explores how progressives can shape a new vision for the economy. This is the first essay in the series.
Privatizing the government is one of the most active projects of the early 21st century.
Everything we once expected the government to do — from education to regulatory rule-writing to military operations to healthcare services to prison management — it now does less of, preferring to support markets in which these services are done through independent, profit-maximizing agents. Tools such as contracting out, vouchering and the selling-off of state assets have been used to remake the government during our market-worshipping era.
Privatization is one of the few political projects that enjoys bipartisan support: Conservatives cheer the rollback of the state, and liberals like to claim that the virtues of the free market are being used towards the egalitarian ends of public policy. The fraud and waste that often come with outsourcing these services has been well-documented. The private management in Iraq and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the lobbying efforts of corporate prisons have all provided horror stories of what happens when cronyism guides decision-making on behalf of the state. But privatization as standard government practice has problems that go far beyond the abuses of any single incident.
Rather than solving problems with government, privatization often amplifies those issues to new extremes. Instead of unleashing market innovation, it often introduces new parasitic partners into the decision-making process. Instead of providing a check on the power of the government, it allows the state to circumvent constitutional and democratic accountability measures by merging with the private sector. And ultimately, the practice replaces the set of choices and constraints found in democracy, with another set found in the marketplace. Today’s political conversation is blind to these problems out of a mistaken faith in the efficiency and fundamental equality of markets, contrasted to the ineffectiveness and corruptibility of the state.
What advocates miss is that the logic of markets creates private-sector coalitions capable of extracting just as much from taxpayers as the state. Corporations, lobbyists and other market actors can have just as much political agency as the government, and privatization can mobilize businesses to rewrite market practices.
This political process plays out in the quality of the services provided and the structure of the companies providing them. Privatization has sometimes meant that the most lucrative and easiest parts of these government obligations go into private hands, creating private profit, while the most difficult and dangerous parts remain with the public. This can range from the “privatizing the gains, socializing the losses” of various parts of the financial sector to the “cream-skimming” that goes on in many other industries.
If privatization is meant to put a check on the size and power of the state it often backfires, as the practice can be used to circumvent normal mechanisms that exist to hold the state accountable. A whole array of transparency laws and constitutional checks don’t carry over when the government outsources its responsibilities and activities to independent businesses.
Privatization as a way of avoiding constraints and accountability measures has two particularly troubling consequences. First, the government can use independent agents to do things that they themselves cannot do, betraying the whole point of keeping government in check. Especially in the world of surveillance, this practice can act as a way to get around constitutional protections enjoyed by citizens.
Second, accountability measures that have evolved through decades of public law are jettisoned when a service leaves the public sector, allowing companies to do the government’s work in a network of secrecy. Ways the public keeps a check on the government, from the Freedom of Information Act to the Administrative Procedure Act to whole regimes of other transparency laws, do not bind outside businesses.