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In the United States, public services have traditionally been understood to serve society as a whole in addition to the individuals directly served. Public services have traditionally included the operation of public schools, jails and prisons, the military, local, state and national parks, resources like rivers and public lands, roads and highways, the administration of social programs, and services like police, fire, garbage collection.
Privatization is turning over traditional public services to not-for-profit agencies or for-profit companies or contractors. While public services are overseen by public boards and regulated through laws passed by democratically elected bodies, privatized services are privately managed and most often no longer accountable to the public but instead to privately-appointed boards and/or shareholders, who are exempt from sunshine laws.
While public services are paid for primarily through taxes, privatized services may be paid for with any combination of public funds, fees charged for services, or grants from individuals or philanthropy. Privatized services may be provided without profiting the provider, or they may be offered for profit.
The United Church of Christ’s Twenty-fifth General Synod named concerns about privatization in a Resolution for the Common Good, passed in 2005: “A just and good society balances individualism with the needs of the community. In the past quarter century our society has lost this ethical balance… While some may suggest that the sum total of individual choices will automatically constitute the common good, there is no evidence that choices based on self interest will protect the vulnerable or provide the saveguards and services needed by the whole population. While as a matter of justice and morality we strive always to expand the individual rights guaranteed by our government for those who have lacked rights, we also affirm our commitment to vibrant communities and recognize the important role of government for providing public services on behalf of the community.”
The “Resolution for the Common Good” resolves “to affirm the role of public institutions paid for by taxes for ensuring essential services and protecting the good of the wider community,” and to make our culture reflect the following values: “that government policy and services are central to serving the common good,” “that paying taxes for government services is a civic responsibility of individuals and businesses,” and “that the tax code should be progressive, with the heaviest burden on those with the greatest financial means.”
Our work in Justice & Witness Ministries Speaks to Privatization.
Privatization: A Challenge to the Common Good (Faith Reflections on Privatization) is a somewhat dated Justice & Witness Ministries’ resource from 2003, but it covers issues that remain relevant today including the privatization of water, Social Security, health care, public education, prisons, and the military.