So during The privatization of everything is mostly made up of examples and stories about the failure of privatization – how charter schools perpetuate racial disparities in education, how private broadband won’t bring service to poor communities, how the private medical insurance leaves us sick and in debt – it makes you wonder: would privatization be okay if it worked? If he could clean up the mess and gaffes of our government, would he be legit? It even suggests why privatization has such bipartisan appeal: any criticism of public action, be it public wars or public schools, can be turned into a privatization sales pitch. This, of course, is an ugly question for opponents of privatization to consider – and one that desperately needs a clear and comprehensive answer.
In his 2020 book, The privatized state, Chiara Cordelli, professor of political science at the University of Chicago, addresses this question with a reflection that is both simple and enlightening. “Benefiting others,” she writes, “is an insufficient ground for the right to rule over them.” The question of whether privatization is bad is not a question of efficiency or economy. It is a question of political philosophy. Privatization is a process, she argues, that makes some people subject to the unilateral will of others. But democracy, as a recent political project, was born out of a clear desire to curb the power of the private actors who have defined monarchical Europe. Privatization is, categorically, anti-democratic and nothing else.
It is not even an attempt to reduce the size of government, as is so often claimed. Cordelli notes that since the privatization project began in the 1980s, government has exploded in size and scope. Instead, she calls privatization a “refeudalization of the state.” The political vision of thinkers like Savas and Friedman, as well as modern-day privatization fanatics like Donald Trump and Rahm Emanuel, is a feudal order where power is wielded in the shadows, in privately negotiated contracts, in dynastic private corporations, and beyond the reach of the law. Private government, from the perspective of a society that hopes for democracy, is illegitimate government. In fact, one could say that the purpose of democracy is to prevent privatization.