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Debates over contracting out government functions to private, for-profit entities often play out within a deliberative framework that can be thought of as “comparative efficiency.” From this perspective, the decision whether to privatize any given government function turns on which sector, public or private, would perform the relevant function more efficiently. Comparative efficiency thus has two defining features. First, it views the motivating question as a choice between public and private. Second, it assumes efficiency to be the sole value guiding the analysis.

That comparative efficiency is the appropriate way to approach the issue of privatization tends to be taken for granted. Comparative efficiency, after all, takes no position as to the functions the state ought to perform. It simply holds that whatever tasks the state undertakes should be performed as efficiently as possible. And if fulfilling a chosen aim is good, how could fulfilling it more efficiently not be better?

By remaining agonistic as to which needs society ought to seek to satisfy, comparative efficiency can lay claim to the virtue of value neutrality. As I show below with the example of private prisons, however, comparative efficiency is not value neutral, nor does the existence of the privatization option make the adoption of this framework inevitable. Why, then, does the perspective of comparative efficiency continue to dominate the privatization debate? The answer, I suggest, is that comparative efficiency operates as a rhetorical device that keeps the debate within particular bounds, excluding some concerns altogether and reframing others in ways consistent with its own priorities.

This process is clearly discernable in the debate over private prisons. In this debate, the persistent focus is on comparing the performance of private prisons with their public counterparts in terms of their relative efficiency. This comparative focus, however, obscures troubling features common to public and private facilities alike, including the imposition of gratuitous inhumane punishment, indifference to the risk of imposing unjustifiably long sentences, and the distorting effects of financial interests on prison policy. Moreover, the exclusive concern with the value of efficiency shapes the inquiry to crowd out of the picture consideration of all other normative implications of incarcerating convicted offenders.

In this essay, I explore the mechanisms through which the “thought style” of comparative efficiency achieves these effects in the private prisons context. Doing so helps explain why critics concerned with the normative implications of privatization have had so little success in influencing, much less defining, the terms of the private prisons debate. I do not attempt to make the empirical case for this lack of success; the minimal traction broader normative concerns have had in this context will be familiar to anyone who has tried—whether in print or in conversation— to introduce into discussion about private prisons issues of justice or legitimacy or any other considerations bearing on the state’s obligations to the incarcerated. True, debate over broad-based penal reform itself may be carried out in overtly normative terms. But the more focused debate over private prisons has somehow remained impervious to such considerations, as has the more general discourse regarding prison administration, such that the priorities of comparative efficiency have come to exert a sort of gravitational pull over the thinking of those whose job it is to run the prisons. In this deliberative climate, virtually all policy challenges prison administrators face are likely to be framed in comparative efficiency terms—even those challenges that arguably call out for more explicitly normative analysis.

Readers already steeped in the privatization literature may wonder at yet another essay on private prisons. Isn’t everything to be said on that topic already in print? And given the many as-yet-unanswered questions posed by the nature and extent of privatization in the 21st century, wouldn’t we be better served spending less time on the special case of private prisons and focusing instead on issues relevant to the main run of privatized governmental functions?

In fact, the topic of this essay—why the debate over private prisons takes the particular shape it does—is as yet unexplored in the literature. But my main purpose here is not to fill this gap. It is instead to use this example to illustrate a phenomenon with applicability to privatization in general, namely, how ways of thinking about matters of policy can shape the collective understanding of what is at stake; limit our capacity to question or transcend that collective understanding; and even have tangible effects on the world quite independent of what the individuals employing these ways of thinking might intend or prefer or even realize. With this aim in mind, I offer in what follows an account of the rhetorical effects of comparative efficiency with the aim of explaining its dominance over, and effects on, the private prisons debate. I then consider the interests and values served by the ways comparative efficiency structures this debate, and argue that it is the project of privatization itself that is the beneficiary. 

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