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Privatization (sometimes: denationalization or privatisation) is the economic process of transferring property, from public ownership to private ownership. The opposite process is nationalization. In theory, privatization helps establish a "free market", as well as fostering capitalist competition. Conversely, socialists view privatization negatively, arguing that it reduces state control of essential services.

In general, nationalization was common during the immediate post-WW2 period, but privatization became a more dominant economic trend (especially within the United States and the United Kingdom) during the 1980s and '90s. This trend of privatization has often been characterized as part of a "global wave" of neoliberal policies, and some observers argue that this was greatly influenced by the policies of Reagan and Thatcher. The term "privatization" was coined in 1948 and is thought to have been popularized by The Economist during the '80s.

Privatization is frequently associated with industrial or service-oriented enterprises, such as mining, manufacturing or power generation, but it can also apply to any asset, such as land, roads, or even rights to water. In recent years, government services such as health, sanitation, and education have been particularly targeted for privatization in many countries.

Table of contents
1 Arguments for privatization
2 Arguments against privatization
3 Corporatization
4 Partial list of privatizations
5 Notable anti-privatization protests
6 Non-state, non-centralized alternatives to privatization
7 See also
8 External links

Arguments for privatization

The basic argument given for privatization is that governments have few incentives to ensure that the enterprises they own are well run. On the other hand, private owners, it is said, do have such an incentive: they will lose money if businesses are poorly run. The theory holds that, not only will the enterprise's clients see benefits, but as the privatized enterprise becomes more efficient, the whole economy will benefit. Ideally, privatization propels the establishment of social, organizational and legal infrastructures and institutions that are essential for an effective market economy.

Advocates of privatization argue that governments run businesses poorly for the following reasons:

In particular, the first and last reasons become important because money is a scarce resource: if government-run companies are losing money, or if they are not as profitable as possible, this money is unavailable to other, more efficient firms. Thus, the efficient firms will have a harder time finding capital, which makes it difficult for them to raise production and create more employment.

Ideally, privatizations are organized as auctions where bidders compete to offer the state the highest price, creating real value that can be used by the state as investment capital.

The state can also allow foreigners to buy privatized enterprises, whereby an outside investor invests the capital needed to upgrade and modernize the firm, making it internationally competitive.

Arguments against privatization

Opponents of privatization argue that it is undesirable to let private entrepreneurs own public institutions for the following reasons:

In practical terms, there are many pitfalls to privatization. Privatization has rarely worked out ideally because it is so intertwined with political concerns, especially in post-communist economies or in developing nations where corruption is endemic. Even in advanced market economies like Great Britain, where privatization has been popular with governments (if not all of the public) since the Thatcher era, problems center on the fact that privatization programs are very politically sensitive, raising many legitimate political debates. Who decides how to set values on state enterprises? Does the state accept cash or for government-provided coupons? Should the state allow the workers or managers of the enterprise to gain control over their own workplace? Should the state allow foreigners to buy privatized enterprises? Which levels of government can privatize which assets? How much?

In the short-term, privatization can cause tremendous social upheaval, as privatizations are nearly always accompanied by large layoffs. If a small firm is privatized in a large economy, the effect may be negligible. If a single large firm or many small firms are privatized at once, a whole nation's economy may plunge into despair. For example, in the Soviet Union, many state industries were often not even value adding, with cost of inputs exceeding the cost of outputs. After privatization, sixteen percent of the workforce became unemployed in both Eastern Germany and Poland. The social consequences of this process have been horrendous, impoverishing millions, but to little social benefit in many post-Communist countries. In the process, Russia has gone from having one of the world's most equitable distributions of wealth in the Soviet era to one of the least today. There has been a dearth of large-scale investment to modernize Soviet industries and businesses still trade with each other by means of barter.

Privatization in the absence of a market system may lead to assets being held by a few very wealthy people, a so-called oligarchy, at the expense of the general population and may discredit the process of economic reform. This is notably the case in Russia, Mexico, and Brazil.

Moreover, where free-market economics are rapidly imposed, a country may not have the bureaucratic tools necessary to regulate it. This has been a pertinent problem in Russia and in many South American countries, although some other Eastern European countries, such as Poland and the Czech Republic, fared better in this respect, partly through the support of the European Union. Paradoxically, while Britain has long had a market economy, it also faced this issue after it privatized utilities in the Thatcher era; Britain's utilities regulator was often criticized as being ineffective.

If the privatized company is a natural monopoly, or exists in a market which is prone to serious market failures, consumers may be worse off if the company is in private hands. This seems to have been the case with rail privatization in the UK and New Zealand; in both countries, government intervention has become necessary. In cases where privatization has been successful, it is because genuine competition has arisen. A good example of this is long-distance telecommunications in Europe, where the former state-owned enterprises lost their monopolies, competitors entered the market, and tariffs for international calls fell dramatically.

If the privatization does not fully transfer property rights to the newly private firm, there may be disincentives for the firm to make capital investments. This was a particular problem in the case of the privatized rail track-leasing company in the UK.

Many have argued that the strategy of privatization in Russia differed from those seen in more successful post-communist economies like Hungary and Poland, and combined with capital market liberalization, and failure to establish institutional infrastructure, have led to incentives for capital flight, contributing to post-communist economic contraction in Russia.

Likewise, countries such as Argentina which embarked upon far-reaching privatization programs, selling off valuable, profitable industries such as energy companies, rapidly impoverished the governments. Revenue streams which could previously be directed towards social ends (health, education, etc.) suddenly dried up, resulting in catastrophic drop in public services.

Privatization can also have a ripple effect on local economies. State-owned enterprises can be obliged to patronize national or local suppliers. Privatized companies don't have that restriction, hence shift purchasing elsewhere. Bolivia underwent a rigorous privatization program in the mid 1990s, with disastrous impact on the local economy.

Some privatizations have already been deemed failures. British Rail is one such case. The track-owning company has been effectively repossessed by the government, and many of the train-running companies are at risk of having their concession removed for failing to provide adequate services. One of them, Connex, actually had its franchise cut short in June 2003 by the government for what the Strategic Rail Authority called "poor financial management." However, in other cases, particularly in poor countries, unsuccessful privatizations cannot be so easily undone. Governments don't have the resources or the political will to do it, and there is strong pressure exerted by international lending agencies to leave the situation as it is.

Finally, it has been argued that the Chinese economic reform has illustrated that economic reform can take place in the absence of mass privatization.

The above arguments have centered on whether or not it is realistic to apply privatization theory to the real world, but some reject the profit incentive. Some opponents of privatization often argue that because the driving motive of a private company is profit, not public service, the public welfare may be sacrificed to the demands of profitability. There is no definitive answer, but a strong argument can be made for leaving essential services, such as water, electricity, health, primary education, and so forth, in public hands.


New Zealand has experienced the privatization of its telecommunication industry, its railway system and part of its electricity market. The process of privatization was halted in 1999 when the New Zealand Labour Party won the election. Although most of the electricity generation and the electricity transmission system remain state owned, the government has corporatized this sector as well as New Zealand Post, the Airways Corporation and other smaller state-owned enterprises (SOEs).

The effect of corporatization has been to convert the state departments into public companies and interpose commercial boards of directors between the shareholding ministers and the management of the enterprises. To some extent, this model has enabled efficiencies to be gained without ownership of strategic organizations being transferred. This has been the policy of the People's Republic of China.

Partial list of privatizations

United Kingdom

Germany The Netherlands Australia New Zealand For more, see also: state-owned enterprises Iraq Japan United States

Notable anti-privatization protests



Non-state, non-centralized alternatives to privatization

See also

External links