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One of my favorite pastimes is tallying the economic and social death wishes espoused by leftists, populists and other statists. A frequent theme of their entreaties is the presumed ugliness of profits sought by private businesses. Their expressed distaste is usually couched in terms suggesting that profits are a certainty, which of course they are not. Profits are always at risk unless protected by government. The critics are sometimes focused on lines of business that involve public assets or a supposed public purpose, such as education. Two other examples of that nature recently came up in my news feed: privately-operated prisons and private management of public parks.

The complaints heard about these kinds of business operations are based on ill-founded notions about the function of profit: that it is appropriate for resources to earn rewards only in some endeavors and not others, regardless of the property invested and the risks assumed by the enterprise. Another fallacy is that somehow, as if by magic, the motives and competence of public employees are beyond question. In fact, the ineffective and sometimes perverse incentives faced by public institutions and employees tend to undermine effective performance. That’s the underlying reason why privatization of services is often in the public interest. The detractors of profit usually rely on anecdotal evidence of poor performance by private managers without any objective basis of comparison.

Warren Meyer at Coyote Blog discusses the common misconception held by many regarding the relative morality of profits and wages. His comments are in the context of the company he owns and manages, which operates public parks under contract with the US Forest Service (USFS) and other public agencies, collecting revenue via entry and camping fees. Meyer (and I) find it astonishing that the aversion to private park operations is so common:

The most typical statement I hear from USFS employees that summarizes this opposition — and it is quite common to hear it — is that ‘It is wrong to make a profit on public lands.’ …. This general distaste for profit, which is seen as “dirty” in contrast to wages which are relatively ‘clean’ (at least up to some number beyond which they are dirty again), is not limited to the USFS or even to government agencies in general, but permeates much of the public.

Meyer goes on to describe a conversation he had with a USFS District Ranger. I provide a few excerpts below:

Me: If you think it’s wrong to make money on public lands, I assume you must volunteer, else you too would be making money on public lands.
Ranger: No, of course I get paid.
Me: Well, I know what I make for profit in your District, and I have a good guess what your salary probably is, and I can assure you that you make at least twice as much as me on these public lands.
Ranger: But that is totally different.
Me: How? … My profit is similar to your wage in that it is the way I get paid for my effort on this land — efforts that are generally entirely in harmony with yours as we are both trying to serve visitors and protect the natural resources here. But unlike your wage, my profit is also a return on the investment I have made. Every truck, uniform, and tool we use comes out of my profit, whereas you get all the tools you need paid for by your employer above and beyond your salary. Further, your salary is virtually guaranteed to you, short of some staggering malfeasance. Even if you do a bad job you likely would just get shunted to a less interesting staff position at the same salary, rather than fired. On the other hand if I do a bad job, or if one of my employees slips up, or even if some absolutely random occurrence entirely outside my control occurs (like, say, a flood that closes our operations) my profit can completely evaporate, or even turn into a loss. So like you, I get paid for my efforts here on public lands, but I have to take risk and make investments that aren’t required of you. So what about that makes my profit less honorable than your wage?
Ranger: Working on public lands should be a public service, not for profit
Me: Well, I think you are starting to make the argument again that you should be volunteering and not taking a salary. But leaving that aside, why is profit inconsistent with service to the public?”

Privatization is not inconsistent with service to the public except under one circumstance highlighted by Meyer in a postscript. The ranger might have asked:

How do we know your profits are not just the rents from a corrupt, cronyist government contracting process?

Of course, if that were true, it would not necessarily be worse than a park operated exclusively by a public agency with no incentive to operate efficiently. The key here is to have effective review of the contracting process and good performance incentives in place. Meyer notes that his company serves millions of visitors each year at high service levels for a cost that is low relative to government-operated parks, and the company receives excellent reviews. More power to him! Profits are not synonymous with graft. Unfortunately, the purely emotional “feeling” that profits are immoral or dishonorable is amplified by the public nature of park assets, and that idea won’t ever be purged from the populist mind.

Ann Althouse brought similar thoughts to mind in describing Hillary Clinton’s weakly-reasoned condemnation of privately-operated prisons. Here’s Hillary at the first presidential debate early this week, after expressing approval of the Obama Administration’s decision to phase out most privately-operated federal prisons:

You shouldn’t have a profit motivation to fill prison cells with young Americans.

You can almost hear Althouse, a law professor at the University of Wisconsin, laughing at the idea that operators of private correctional facilities have any ability “to fill prison cells”. That’s not how our justice system works, Hillary! Some argue that “occupancy guarantees” in private prison contracts give prosecutors an incentive to seek harsh sentences, but that is a tenuous argument, especially with prisons generally over-crowded as they are. And it isn’t as if private prisons are free of oversight. Althouse contends that Hillary Clinton’s position is a concession to the left made necessary by earlier outrage that the Clinton campaign had accepted contributions from the private prison industry, itself prompted by a Bernie Sanders’ attack on that point.

Reason Magazine commented on Sanders’ condemnation of private prisons last year, which then housed only about 12 percent of the federal prison population. Reason noted that closing private federal prisons would contribute to over-crowding at publicly-operated facilities. Sanders also proposed forcing state and local governments to close private prisons under their jurisdictions within two years. Not only would that action ignore objective measures of performance and cost, it would violate established contracts and constitute an outrageous overreach of federal authority.

The Administration’s decision to phase out private prisons was subjected to an even-handed critique by Sasha Volokh (younger brother of Eugene) in August. Volokh covers the evidence on costs and quality of private versus publicly-operated prisons. He finds that the DOJ memo announcing the decision to phase out private operators exaggerates cost and quality differences that favor government operations, and discounts evidence that favors private prisons. Reminiscent of Warren Meyer’s notes on privately-operated parks, Volokh stresses the importance of creating appropriate incentives for operators. Current quality incentives are weak, and he believes there is vast room for improvement:

It might seem surprising, but private prisons have almost never been evaluated on their performance and compensated on that basis. …. In light of that, maybe it’s even surprising that private prisons have done as well as they have in the comparative studies. Be that as it may, the advent of performance-based contracting could open up possibilities for substantial quality improvements. This could work in the public sector too (bonus payments for public prison wardens?), but the private sector is probably better situated to take advantage of monetary incentives.

The Reason Foundation published a report earlier this year entitled “Private Prisons: Quality Corrections at a Lower Cost“. The study reveals the leftist critique of private prisons to be a sham. Here are the two major takeaways:

Private prisons save money-10 to 15 percent average savings on operations costs, based on fourteen independent cost comparison studies.

Private prisons provide at least the same quality services that government prisons do-based on six independent quality comparison studies, rates of American Correctional Association accreditation, recidivism comparison studies, contract terminations, and prisoner and correctional officer lawsuits.

People often get their “facts” from questionable sources. As to privately-operated correctional facilities, I’ve heard critics state that people should watch the fictional Netflix serial “Orange Is the New Black” to gain a proper understanding of the horrors of private prisons. And many seem eager to accept that narrative without any knowledge of the facts. That’s probably because they have been taught that profits are “dirty”, that public purposes like the operations of parks and prisons are so pure of public purpose that private operators can have no legitimate role, and that government operation can be counted upon for quality and efficiency. Now doesn’t that sound oxymoronic?