Idaho prisons show once again that privatization of government functions is not such a good idea

We got another reminder of the failure of much privatization of government functions in a Wall Street Journal article detailing the woes that the state of Idaho has had since it privatized its state prisons in 2000. The current vendor is walking away from a new contract, leaving Idaho with several lawsuits alleging understaffing leading to gangs rampaging violently through Idaho’s private prisons.  The Journal article quotes one of the three board members of Idaho’s Department of Corrections: “Privatization is a failed concept in the state of Idaho.”

Privatization is also a failed concept when it comes to schools. For years studies have shown that charter schools—private schools run with public money—underperform public schools. And a recent study showed that when all factors are considered, private schools also underperform public schools.

By the way, Idaho isn’t the only state having problems with privatized prisons.

I look at the privatization movement as nothing more than a government wealth transfer program. Since the decline of private sector incomes, government jobs now tend to pay more than private sector jobs at all levels except the top executives, who tend to make significantly more money in the private sector. By privatizing a school or prison facility, what the government is really doing is taking money from the many entry and midlevel jobs—union jobs to a large degree—and giving it to senior management and the investors. It’s a kind of reverse Robin Hood.

The question remains unanswered as to why the government tends to do better than the private sector on such tasks as educating our children or housing our prisoners. Is it that these functions are inherently better served by government for some reason? Perhaps it’s because government is more stable and will always be around, whereas private institutions come and go as part of the “creative destruction of capitalism?” Or maybe public schools and prisons work best because government workers tend be unionized, since numerous studies show that union workers are more productive? Or maybe the service aspect of working for the government makes executives more dedicated to their customers and less willing to cut corners. Certainly when there is public scrutiny, it’s more likely an exec who cuts corners will be found out. I like to think that the fact that public schools and jails outperform private ones comes down to the simple fact that in America the most competent make the most money and public school teachers and correctional officers make more money than their confreres working for privatized concerns.

Whatever it is, we have gathered enough evidence now to recognize that the privatization movement has been a failure, except for the executives and investors of the companies who get the federal contracts and the factotums these rich folk send to state legislatures to vote to privatize yet more government functions.

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