TRY TO THINK of a government activity that has never been done or is not now being done by a private firm operating in a more or less competitive market. It's not easy. Everybody knows that businesses as well as governments have collected trash, swept streets, operated buses, managed hospitals, and run schools. Some of us are aware that private security firms have more employees than do municipal police departments. Americans who have traveled abroad know that in many foreign nations the governments own and operate the airline companies, telephone systems, electric utilities, and television stations, services that here are provided in large part by private enterprises. A few of us are aware that in some states businesses are running prisons. The historically-minded among us will recall that at one time private banks issued their own money and nations going to war hired mercenary armies.
But there are many more less obvious examples. Fire-fighting once was done almost exclusively by private firms in this country and still is done that way in many places in Denmark. (For-profit fire departments have staged a modest comeback here: One company now operates fifty fire departments in five states.1) Private weather forecasters compete with the National Weather Service. Businesses have been hired to manage Medicare insurance claims, train the unemployed, man naval vessels, and supply inspectors for the agency that verifies Soviet compliance with the treaty banning intermediate-range nuclear weapons. Once parcels were delivered to our homes almost entirely by the U.S. Postal Service; now that function has been largely taken over by private carriers such as UPS. We have national parks and forests run by the Park Service and the Forest Service, but we also have privately owned and managed parks and some environmentalists believe that more private ownership would improve