Private Is Better

Anything government can do, the private sector can do better. It can even do things government can't.


Our next president will almost certainly be Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.

But I take heart knowing that America's founders imposed checks and balances, so there will be limits on what bad things the next president can do.

Most of what government does is expensive and useless, no matter who is president. Or governor. Or mayor.

Politicians say there are so many things only government should do—explore outer space, provide airport security, supply utilities, etc. But even those things work better when the private sector does them.

NASA put rockets into space. But the private company SpaceX found a way to bring those same rockets safely back to earth. SpaceX now puts satellites in orbit for much less than NASA thought possible.

Private, competitive enterprises routinely find ways to do things more efficiently than lazy bureaucracies. After all, government can keep screwing up forever and just tax you more. But private companies must make a profit or die.

"Everybody loves the space program," says Lori Garver on my TV show this week. Garver was President Obama's former No. 2 at NASA, but now she admits, "It's a government bureaucracy. Their incentives are not to do things more efficiently."

Obama actually tried to privatize more of it. "NASA uses test stands that cost $300 million to refurbish, says Garver. "When I went to (Amazon's) Jeff Bezos's facility, Blue Origins, they were building the same quality test stand for $30 million… That is crazy."

Airport security also works better when government doesn't run it.

After 9/11, politicians wanted to show they were making airport security tougher. Republicans at least vowed that workers of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) would not be unionized. But a few years later, Democrats won, and the TSA became unionized. Now, lines are extra long, and the union whines that it needs more resources. That would be more money wasted.

Fortunately, Congress allows airports to beg for the right to opt out of the government-run system. Security lines move faster at airports that have. At San Francisco International Airport, the largest to privatize, travelers even told us the screeners were nicer.

They're also better at finding stuff. The TSA tested them and found them twice as good at finding contraband as TSA screeners.

Private companies try harder. San Francisco's company has screeners practice racing to find mock contraband. The fastest wins $2,000.

More airports are asking the Department of Homeland Security to allow them to use private screeners. DHS stalls, because governments rarely relinquish power voluntarily.

In quiet ways, privatization keeps improving our lives. A thousand American cities have now switched from government-run to private water systems.

When the government-run system in Flint, Michigan, poisoned people, pundits made it sound like cold-hearted Republican politicians created the problem. But government at all levels and of both parties failed in Flint.

Government water departments routinely neglect basic maintenance. In Jersey City, New Jersey, they let the pipes rust. The water didn't taste good, failed government's own tests—and kept getting more expensive.

City workers said there wasn't anything they could do.

"It can't be done" is an answer heard in bureaucracies everywhere. So the mayor put the water contract out for bid. A for-profit company won. Within months, the private company fixed pipes the government couldn't fix.

But the private company hired the same government workers. I asked some: Are you working harder now? "Yes. You're always on the go," one said.

"Were you goofing off before?" I asked. "Sitting around?"

"Well, occasionally, yes," one worker admitted.

"What if the private company screws up?" I asked the man who privatized the system back when he was mayor, Bret Schundler.

"They're fired. They're toast. If they blow it, we're going to give the contract to somebody else," said Schundler. "There's nothing like the prospect of a hanging to concentrate the mind."

Right. Private companies must do better because they get fired if they don't. Government never fires itself.

Most of what makes our lives better—flush toilets, air-conditioning, Google, Facebook, cellphones, pacemakers, vegetables in winter, etc.—comes from the private sector.

There's nothing stopping people everywhere from enjoying improvements like the ones in Jersey City, in San Francisco's airport and at SpaceX—nothing except government bureaucracy and our outdated belief that many jobs just belong in government's clumsy hands.


NEXT: Nick Gillespie Talking Gary Johnson, William Weld, Pot Prohibition Tonite at 8 PM ET

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  1. Well, the private sector can’t hold a candle to the public sector when it comes to forcefully taking money from 49.9% of the citizenry to give to the other 50.1% as a result of a simple majority vote.

    They just have different business models I guess.

  2. We’ve solved all the big problems so we need government to create some fresh new ones.

    1. Good point, there are things the government excels at!

  3. Even the private sector can do better at governing our societies and communities than the state can — just see Housing/Condo Associations – mini private governments in action.

    1. Hmm. Perhaps those HOAs should have the authorities to print money and execute people.

      1. Anyone who has spent time participating in an HOA knows that actual government must be filled with little tyrants.

        1. HOAs are, um, a trip.

          I witnessed one saga that started with an old widower trying to save money by painting his faded shutters using a can of paint his friend gave him. Bzzzzzt!! Wrong shade of blue for the HOA. They fine him. He gets mad, refuses to repaint *and* to cut his grass. They increase the fine. He stands his ground. They sic the cops on him. Finally he complies, and dies.

          1. My sole experience with an HOA in California left me shaking my head in disbelief. From the guy who filed multiple lawsuits against the HOA because he thought it was being run by Illuminati to the guy who complained about the speed bump he kept tripping over when he went for his midnight walk to the fact that the HOA was directly employing two landscapers and not paying any workmen’s comp insurance.

        2. Anyone who has spent time participating in an HOA knows that actual government must be filled with little tyrants.

          You’re not wrong.

          There are three types of bureaucrats I’ve dealt with.

          Type 1 is the do-nothing “leave me alone and give me my paycheck” load. They tend to retire as soon as they’re eligable.

          Type 2 treats it as a job and will do the job as they understand it. They are suceptible to rule inflexibility and “not my job” syndrome as a result of their initiative has been ground under the cogs of the machine until this becomes the path of least resistance.

          Type 3 are your petty tyrants. They lord it over anyone they can, be it the general public or other members of the bureaucracy. They have their iota of power, and by golly they’re going to use it.

  4. “It can’t be done” is an answer heard in bureaucracies everywhere. So the mayor put the water contract out for bid. A for-profit company won. Within months, the private company fixed pipes the government couldn’t fix.


    But the private company hired the same government workers. I asked some: Are you working harder now? “Yes. You’re always on the go,” one said.

    *Sticks hands and pants*

    “Well, occasionally, yes,” one worker admitted.

    *Gently strokes*

  5. But I take heart knowing that America’s founders imposed checks and balances, so there will be limits on what bad things the next president can do.

    Checks and balances are so quaint, like enumerated powers. Today we have deference and a living Constitution.

    1. Oh, that was just a typo. It is “innumerable powers”. Seriously, you can Google it. The government has innumerable powers. Now it makes a lot more sense, right?

        1. Microwave ovens are potentially very dangerous machines, but you can use this one with confidence because of detailed government regulations that limit the maximum amount of radiation leakage and mandate two different safety interlocks that prevent its operation with the door ajar or open.


          1. I’m sure the creator of the microwave or the company’s selling it provided safety features because of government.

        2. You stop at a local gas station to fill up. The very fact that this oil company offers this gas to you for sale is dependent on the existence of certain government laws. This company would not do business in your town without a legal system that assures them that you will pay for any gas you pump into your car. This economic exchange ? like buying your house ? would not be taking place without a system of statutory and common law that protects private property and regulates sales transactions. This simple sale is covered by Article Two of the Uniform Commercial Code ? dozens of pages of laws that regulate every phase of a transaction for the sale of goods and provide remedies for problems that may arise.

          You have got to be fucking kidding me.

          Trade wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for government!

          1. To a certain extend that is true. One of the legitimate functions of government is protecting property rights. Without government you’d have to post a guard outside your home whenever you leave, and you’d have to provide and armed escort when bringing goods to market.

            1. His claim is that trade requires government. It’s a denial of the black market which thrives in places where government is too burdensome.

              1. Trade doesn’t require government, but government can facilitate it. That’s why there is so much violence in the black market. People need to guard their goods, and they can’t use courts to settle disputes.

                1. The black market only exists because the government has either A) Declared those goods illegal or B) taxed and regulated the good so much that a black market pops up.

                  So I would argue that without government, black markets wouldn’t exist.

                  1. So I would argue that without government, black markets wouldn’t exist.

                    True. But at the same time, if there was no government, all markets would be black markets.

                    1. Nope. There would only be markets.

        3. There’s boot licking, and then there’s the boot fellating that is that garbage piece article. JFC, I’m ill after reading it.

          1. It’s 2nd grade level civics for adults.

        4. Professor of Politics at Mount Holyoke College sums up all you need to know.

        5. Think about this: “ownership” and “private property” are not things that exist in nature.

          Molon Labe

          1. To whoever wrote that:

            So if ownership and private property don’t exist in nature, why not reach into a beehive with your bare hands and steal some honey? Why don’t you crawl into a bear’s den and take a nap?

  6. Whenever I’m told that something is “too critical” to let private enterprise handle it, I point out the fact that we would starve without food, yet you can walk into any big box grocery store and find acres of a huge variety of food sitting on the shelves. It’s a miracle I don’t weigh 400 pounds.

    1. We only have food because of government. Government regulates the food supply. Without the FDA there would be no food. Only poison. Everyone knows this. Duh.

      1. Venezuelans never have to worry about eating poison.

        1. And then there is the Soviets. Remember how they handled things. They knew that food was too critical to let private enterprise handle it. So they had these five year plans. They were so much better than the private sector that people were lining up every day for their food. In fact they were literally dying to get the food in Ukraine.

      2. “These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.”

      3. I read a Salon (I think it was Salon) article a while back that literally claimed that we would not have modern agriculture without the FDA and USDA.

  7. I’m thinking of buying an island on the equator and building a space elevator – who’s with me?

    1. I say we develop the technology to farm CO2 from the air to make carbon fiber strands for the elevator. That way we can sell credits to Al Gore while get rich and provide a worthwhile end product.

      1. To harvest sufficient carbon from such a diffuse sourse would require moving a colossal volume of non-target gasses (nitrogen, etc) as to be more expensive than the credits.

        1. moving a colossal volume of non-target gasses

          I plan to use politicians.

        2. Hsst. Don’t harsh the buzz.

          1. Do you want this project to succeed or not? If we don’t discuss the potential problems with any given approach, we’ll never move to overcome them.

            1. All we need to do is vote on it. If the project gets 50% of the tally, then it’s guaranteed to work.

              Democracy FTW.

              1. It’s guaranteed to generate work.

                And, isn’t that the most important part: people?

    2. What’s your timetable on a tensile material capable of holding the strain? Anchored or unanchored? Do you have any existing finance streams to cover the R&D requirements for gap-resolution between existing and required technologies?

      1. Party-pooper

        1. I’m not going to invest my money blindly in a project, these are details he should have when making a proposal.

          1. We’ll just use kickstarter then.

            1. How about a crowdfunding system where you still get the money if you fall short of your funding goals? The project is ambitious, and potentially capital intensive (unless someone has a plan to get around that). So the target would end up being hard to hit.

              1. potentially capital intensive (unless someone has a plan to get around that)

                Orphans, lots of orphans

          2. Well, to be fair, the timetable on technological advancement is well established and should be known to anyone conversant with the investment sector.

            It goes like this:

            Lab tests have demonstrated working prototype that is assumed will be refined into workable commercial model == 5 years.

            Theoretical model shows a path to a product down the road == 5-10 years.

            Theoretical model shows an opportunity to exploit new areas of science, but it has not yet been demonstrated == 20-30 years.

            So, the latest hard drive advance or new memory technology in the lab is always 5 years out. The next leap in processor technology is always 5-10 years away. And fusion based power plants are always 20-30 years away.

            Since this is a breakthrough in material science that is close to an order of magnitude beyond current theoretical materials (indefinitely long carbon nanotubes aren’t strong enough and even those don’t exist yet), I’d say your answer is in the 20-30 year bucket.

  8. In fact they were literally dying to get the food in Ukraine.

    And the population that remember those days is all but gone… Fortunately, the Days of the Holodomor are still remembered.

    Whether current and future generations continue to take heed, one only knows.

    1. By June, at the height of the famine, people in Ukraine are dying at the rate of 30,000 a day, nearly a third of them are children under 10. Between 1932-34, approximately 4 million deaths are attributed to starvation within the borders of Soviet Ukraine. This does not include deportations, executions, or deaths from ordinary causes. Stalin denies to the world that there is any famine in Ukraine, and continues to export millions of tons of grain, more than enough to have saved every starving man, woman and child.

      *quakes with inchoate rage*

      Every time I see this, every time I read something about the Holodomor, even if I’ve read it a hundred times before, it still infuriates me. That such a thing could happen and it’s history and cause made clear to the entire world, yet there are still people who makes apologies for socialism and demand its institution worldwide, is mindboggling.

  9. Did I mention I like Stossel?

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  11. Uh, NASA has never launched a rocket, it has always been private companies doing it. Musk makes his money from…launching rockets for the government, so does Boeing and Lockheed-Martin and Orbital Sciences…private companies last time I checked. Time to stop the nonsense that SpaceX is somehow different and better.

    1. Boeing and L-M contract to build a rocket for NASA,and then another company provides launch services,at NASAs launch site. Naturally,there have to be consultants between each and every player.
      OTOH,Space-X contracts with NASA (or commercial satellite companies) for orbital delivery service,builds it’s own rocket to it’s own specs,and launches it itself. it controls the entire process.

      Since L-M is making an item -for- NASA to NASA specs,every workhour is logged,materials accounted for,everything documented to gov’t specs,making tons of paperwork and records. OTOH,Space-X doesn’t have to do all that accounting to the gov’t. I’ve talked to people who work for L-M and for the launch services companies,and they’ve told me about how they have to document their every minute and actions. it’s insane.

  12. Oh come on guys… Everything the government does is better in the hands of entrepreneurs? Everything? How about those big fails; Charter Schools and Private Prisons? Can you really believe a mercenary military would actually work? And even your mention of Space-X wouldn’t exist if it hadn’t been for Arpanet and everything learned from NASA. BTW, the TSA lines have nothing to do with unions whining for more money, it’s because our GOP controlled Congress has cut and cut again. The TSA is down 6000 employees from it’s post 9-11 staffing, just as the problems at the VA have nothing to do with lazy government employees, but again, multiple cuts from Congress. I like your articles, but seriously, do you have to be the equivalent of FOX News for Libertarians?

    1. Private Prisons are “private” only in terms of making profit. They are still regulated and overseen by the government. In a Private Law society, a prison?like any other business?could only make money from people willing to pay for its service. How many people do you think would pay to imprison drug users and drug dealers, prostitutes, gamblers, etc.?

      If you’d like to understand more about how a Private Law Society would work, here is an excellent start. BTW, obviously this type of society is only for libertarians, i.e., people who believe in the NAP, a 100% free market, and do not believe in positive rights.

      A Spontaneous Order: The Capitalist Case For A Stateless Society…

  13. They’re also better at finding stuff. The TSA tested them and found them twice as good at finding contraband as TSA screeners.

    So, they only miss 90% of contraband items?

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  15. Private sector is much better and can perform and give good results than Anything government can do

  16. Most of what government does is expensive and useless, no matter who is president. Or governor. Or mayor.

    This simply isn’t true. You are such a hack.

  17. Has John Stossel finally gone from being a minarchist to a voluntaryist? (I hope so.)

    A Spontaneous Order: The Capitalist Case For A Stateless Society…

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