Privatization (20TH CENTURY)

Explanation and/or justification of shift of functions from government to market.

Services are better provided and functions better carried out by market enterprises than by public bodies.

At the same time the expectations of citizens are shifted from political solutions – which are collective – to economic ones, which are individual.

Also see: nationalization, laissez-faire, physiocracy, mercantilism

Andrew Gamble, The Free Economy and the Strong State (London, 1988)


The Economist magazine introduced the term privatisation (alternatively privatisation or reprivatisation after the German Reprivatisierung) during the 1930s when it covered Nazi Germany’s economic policy.[3][4] It is not clear if the magazine coincidentally invented the word in English or if the term is a loanword from the same expression in German, where it has been in use since the 19th century.[5]


The word privatization may mean different things depending on the context in which it is used. It can mean moving something from the public sphere into the private sphere, but it may also be used to describe something that was always private, but heavily regulated, which becomes less regulated through a process of deregulation. The term may also be used descriptively for something that has always been private, but could be public in other jurisdictions.[6]

There are also private entities that may perform public functions. These entities could also be described as privatized. Privatization may mean the government sells state-owned businesses to private interests, but it may also be discussed in the context of the privatization of services or government functions, where private entities are tasked with the implementation of government programs or performance of government services. Gillian E. Metzger has written that: “Private entities [in the US] provide a vast array of social services for the government; administer core aspects of government programs; and perform tasks that appear quintessentially governmental, such as promulgating standards or regulating third-party activities.” Metzger mentions an expansion of privatization that includes health and welfare programs, public education, and prisons.[7]


Pre-20th century

The history of privatization dates from Ancient Greece, when governments contracted out almost everything to the private sector.[8] In the Roman Republic private individuals and companies performed the majority of services including tax collection (tax farming), army supplies (military contractors), religious sacrifices and construction. However, the Roman Empire also created state-owned enterprises—for example, much of the grain was eventually produced on estates owned by the Emperor. David Parker and David S. Saal suggest that the cost of bureaucracy was one of the reasons for the fall of the Roman Empire.[8]

Perhaps one of the first ideological movements towards privatization came during China’s golden age of the Han Dynasty. Taoism came into prominence for the first time at a state level, and it advocated the laissez-faire principle of Wu wei (無為), literally meaning “do nothing”.[9] The rulers were counseled by the Taoist clergy that a strong ruler was virtually invisible.

During the Renaissance, most of Europe was still by and large following the feudal economic model. By contrast, the Ming dynasty in China began once more to practice privatization, especially with regards to their manufacturing industries. This was a reversal of the earlier Song dynasty policies, which had themselves overturned earlier policies in favor of more rigorous state control.[10]

In Britain, the privatization of common lands is referred to as enclosure (in Scotland as the Lowland Clearances and the Highland Clearances). Significant privatizations of this nature occurred from 1760 to 1820, preceding the industrial revolution in that country.

20th century onwards

The first mass privatization of state property occurred in Nazi Germany between 1933 and 1937: “It is a fact that the government of the National Socialist Party sold off public ownership in several state-owned firms in the middle of the 1930s. The firms belonged to a wide range of sectors: steel, mining, banking, local public utilities, shipyard, ship-lines, railways, etc. In addition to this, delivery of some public services produced by public administrations prior to the 1930s, especially social services and services related to work, was transferred to the private sector, mainly to several organizations within the Nazi Party.”[11]

Great Britain privatized its steel industry in the 1950s, and the West German government embarked on large-scale privatization, including sale of the majority stake in Volkswagen to small investors in public share offerings in 1961.[8] However, it was in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom and Ronald Reagan in the United States that privatization gained worldwide momentum. Notable privatization attempts in the UK included privatization of Britoil (1982), Amersham International PLC (1982), British Telecom (1984), Sealink ferries (1984), British Petroleum (gradually privatized between 1979 and 1987), British Aerospace (1985 to 1987), British Gas (1986), Rolls-Royce (1987), Rover Group (formerly British Leyland, 1988), British Steel Corporation (1988), and the regional water authorities (mostly in 1989). After 1979, council house tenants in the UK were given the right to buy their homes (at a heavily discounted rate). One million purchased their residences by 1986.

Such efforts culminated in 1993 when British Rail was privatized under Thatcher’s successor, John Major. British Rail had been formed by prior nationalization of private rail companies. The privatization was controversial, and its impact is still debated today, as doubling of passenger numbers and investment was balanced by an increase in rail subsidy.[12]

Privatization in Latin America flourished in the 1980s and 1990s as a result of a Western liberal economic policy. Companies providing public services such as water management, transportation, and telecommunication were rapidly sold off to the private sector. In the 1990s, privatization revenue from 18 Latin American countries totaled 6% of gross domestic product.[13] Private investment in infrastructure from 1990 and 2001 reached $360.5 billion, $150 billion more than in the next emerging economy.[13]

While economists generally give favorable evaluations of the impact of privatization in Latin America,[14] opinion polls and public protests across the countries suggest that a large segment of the public is dissatisfied with or have negative views of privatization in the region.[15]

In the 1990s, the governments in Eastern and Central Europe engaged in extensive privatization of state-owned enterprises in Eastern and Central Europe and Russia, with assistance from the World Bank, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the German Treuhand, and other governmental and nongovernmental organizations.

Ongoing privatization of Japan Post relates to that of the national postal service and one of the largest banks in the world. After years of debate, the privatization of Japan Post spearheaded by Junichiro Koizumi finally started in 2007. The privatization process is expected[by whom?] to last until 2017. Japan Post was one of the nation’s largest employers, as one-third of Japanese state employees worked for it. It was also said to be the largest holder of personal savings in the world. Criticisms against Japan Post were that it served as a channel of corruption and was inefficient. In September 2003, Koizumi’s cabinet proposed splitting Japan Post into four separate companies: a bank, an insurance company, a postal service company, and a fourth company to handle the post offices and retail storefronts of the other three. After the Upper House rejected privatization, Koizumi scheduled nationwide elections for September 11, 2005. He declared the election to be a referendum on postal privatization. Koizumi subsequently won the election, gaining the necessary supermajority and a mandate for reform, and in October 2005, the bill was passed to privatize Japan Post in 2007.[16]

Nippon Telegraph and Telephone’s privatization in 1987 involved the largest share offering in financial history at the time.[17] 15 of the world’s 20 largest public share offerings have been privatizations of telecoms.[17]

In 1988, the perestroika policy of Mikhail Gorbachev started allowing privatization of the centrally planned economy. Large privatization of the Soviet economy occurred over the next few years as the country dissolved. Other Eastern Bloc countries followed suit after the Revolutions of 1989 introduced non-communist governments.

The United Kingdom’s largest public share offerings were privatizations of British Telecom and British Gas during the 1980s under the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher, when many state-run firms were sold off to the private sector. The privatization received very mixed views from the public and the parliament. Even former Conservative prime minister Harold Macmillan was critical of the policy, likening it to “selling the family silver”.[18] There were around 3 million shareholders in Britain when Thatcher took office in 1979, but the subsequent sale of state-run firms saw the number of shareholders double by 1985. By the time of her resignation in 1990, there were more than 10 million shareholders in Britain.[19]

The largest public shares offering in France involved France Télécom.

Egypt undertook widespread privatization under Hosni Mubarak. Following his overthrow in the 2011 revolution, most of the public began to call for re-nationalization, citing allegations of the privatized firms practicing crony capitalism under the old regime

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