How Privatization Thinks: The Case of Prisons
published in GOVERNMENT BY CONTRACT: OUTSOURCING AND AMERICAN DEMOCRACY, Jody Freeman and Martha Minow, eds., Harvard University Press (2009)
30 Pages Posted: 13 Mar 2007 Last revised: 29 Aug 2012
Date Written: August 27, 2012
Debates over contracting out government functions to private, for-profit entities often play out within a deliberative framework that can be thought of as "comparative efficiency." From this perspective, the decision whether to privatize any given government function turns on which sector, public or private, would perform the relevant function more efficiently. Comparative efficiency thus has two defining features: it views the motivating question as a choice between public and private, and it treats efficiency as the sole value guiding the analysis. That comparative efficiency is the appropriate way to approach the issue of privatization tends to be taken for granted. Its value neutrality is also assumed. In this essay, I challenge these assumptions. Using the example of private prisons, I argue that comparative efficiency operates instead as a rhetorical device that keeps the debate within particular bounds, excluding some concerns altogether and reframing others in ways consistent with its own priorities. I then consider the interests and values served by the ways comparative efficiency structures the private prisons debate, and argue that it is the project of privatization itself that is the beneficiary.
Keywords: privatization of government functions, private prison debate, comparative efficiency
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