DOI: 10.1257/jep.12.4.133 ISSN:

State versus Private Ownership

Andrei Shleifer
  • Economics and Econometrics
  • Economics and Econometrics

Private ownership should generally be preferred to public ownership when the incentives to innovate and to contain costs must be strong. In essence, this is the case for capitalism over socialism, explaining the 'dynamic vitality' of free enterprise. The great economists of the 1930s and 1940s failed to see the dangers of socialism in part because they focused on the role of prices under socialism and capitalism and ignored the enormous importance of ownership as the source of capitalist incentives to innovate. Moreover, the concern that private firms fail to address 'social goals' can be addressed through government contracting and regulation, without resorting to government ownership. The case for private provision only becomes stronger when competition between suppliers, reputational mechanisms, the possibility of provision by private not-for-profit firms, as well as political patronage and corruption, are brought into play.

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