When Everything's Private…

The New York Times complains about letting private groups take over jobs…and an urban analyst replies.


Editorial, New York Times, October 20, 1980

The smog in Los Angeles has been so bad lately that some people have tried to buy their own air—in the form of medical oxygen. Lacking prescriptions, they have been turned down. But the setback is probably only temporary. Any day now, someone will figure out how to privatize air. Why not? There is already a private version of just about everything else that used to be, by definition, a public service.

Some forms of private public service have long and honorable histories. Private schools predate public schools. There has been a private New York Society Library since 1754. Gramercy Park has been a private park since 1831. Other services are becoming increasingly privatized. All that Los Angeles smog comes from a sea of cars—private transit.

It is said there are now three times more private policemen—guards, neighborhood patrols, watchmen—than public ones. Private mail services compete fiercely to provide overnight delivery. And though people cannot yet buy private air without a prescription, they are spending money like water for Perrier or Saratoga or Ferrarelle.

Like the privatization trend or not, there's little to be done about it. Minimum good citizenship requires only that people pay their taxes. If they then choose to pay twice, by buying private public services, they are as free to do so as to fly first-class instead of tourist.

Still, a democracy should be troubled when a growing patrician elite glides through life, insulated from the rest of the public. There's no longer even a military draft; society now buys a volunteer army. Public services, deprived of their most influential customers, inevitably decline. The ties that bind a democratic society inevitably loosen.

And that's without considering another kind of private public service allowed under a revived California law: private justice. For $500 or more a day, litigants who are frustrated by interminable court delays may hire retired judges, find a moot court classroom at a law school, say, and go to trial at their convenience. Quick, secluded, efficient—and repugnant.

Bad enough that elite groups lose real-life contact with the public. The reverse is more lamentable, for it runs the risk that the public generally will lose confidence in the very concept of an egalitarian society. In a decent society, providing justice is not merely a public service. It is a social duty.

If the courts are so clogged that the affluent are willing to contemplate private judges, an alarm should reverberate: do something, quick to make the courts work better for everyone. But no such alarm is heard. What is being nurtured by privatization is not the consent of the governed but the convenience of the rich. What a transient bargain.

…People Have Choices

Letter to the editor, New York Times, November 3, 1980

Your recognition of the movement toward privatization is welcome, but your opposition is seriously flawed. You look with disfavor on private mail delivery of messages, yet you deliver my copy of the Times by private messenger. Why don't you use the Postal Service? Probably for the same reason department stores use United Parcel Service—it's faster, cheaper, and more predictable.

Why do you find repugnant the perfectly normal situation where two parties to a private dispute voluntarily seek out a third party of their mutual choosing to settle their differences promptly? Millions of disputes are resolved daily in this manner—by friends, relatives, teachers, priests, etc. You seem to object only to having the disputants pay for such assistance, but why in the world do you consider it better to have the public at large pay—via taxes, for judges, clerks, and courthouses—to settle those private disputes? Even governments hire arbiters to resolve their differences, often under court order, and so do baseball leagues (whose arbiters are called umpires).

You are also mistaken in thinking that privatization is a convenience restricted to the rich. Neighborhood and tenant patrols give local residents a welcome choice of volunteering either their time or their money to safeguard their immediate surroundings, whereas a police department takes only money from taxpayers for patrolling the streets. Such patrols are popular, particularly in poor and lower-middle-class areas, because the public believes that it can get far more protection per dollar or per hour of effort contributed than it can via an equivalent, forced tax payment to the police.

Your editorial position is that public services should be supplied only by public employees working in public agencies. You seem unaware that the resultant public monopolies—whether Postal Service, courts, or police departments—do not necessarily function in the public interest. Furthermore, they are often even harder for the public to regulate or control effectively than are private monopolies.

Alternatives, and the freedom to choose among them, are the essential elements of democracy—not public monopolies.

New York, Oct. 22, 1980

At the time of this exchange a professor of public systems management at Columbia University, E.S. Savas is now an assistant secretary at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Copyright © 1980 by the New York Times Company. Reprinted by permission.