David Stokes

As first appearing in the Southeast Missourian on 10 Feb, 2014:

When I was growing up, I regularly played golf at the Forest Park municipal golf course in St. Louis. Later, in my high school and college years, I noticed the quality of the course was improving, a lot. This happened at the same time (late 1980s) the city of St. Louis outsourced the management of the golf course to a private company. As that outsourcing, or privatization, of the golf course has continued, the quality of the course has continued to improve. I doubt you would find one golfer familiar with the course before and after who thinks the outsourcing of its management and operations did not significantly enhance it.

That same type of story is repeated throughout Missouri. Good government need not be big government, and the public sector does not have to provide public services in every case. There is a role for private delivery, often regulated, of public services in Missouri. In many cases, the private sector can deliver those services more affordably and at a higher quality than the government.

Ambulance service is one area where Southeast Missouri is a leader in the privatization debate. In much of Missouri, government agencies provide ambulance services. However, in Cape Girardeau and Butler counties, ambulance services have long been privately provided. Government operation of ambulance service in most other parts of Missouri leads to a constant pressure to increase taxes and spending. In fact, voters in St. Charles County (outside St. Louis) rejected an ambulance tax increase in 2013, only to see the exact tax increase planned again for 2014. Those private ambulance companies in Southeast Missouri are serving the community just as well as a government agency could, and taxpayers are benefiting.

Research has shown privatization works best when the driving force is pragmatism, not ideology. Politicians and voters can still debate about what services should be provided as part of the eternal debate over the role of government in our society. But privatization is more about how those services are provided, not whether they should be. Unless you genuinely believe as many people as possible should be on the public payroll, such as the big city political machines of yesteryear, then a government service you depend upon or care about likely can be addressed with privatization.

There are certain roles that should always belong to the government, such as police powers, and never to the private sector. Furthermore, the role of government regulation in many privatized public services is important, such as regulation of private utilities. Finally, in some instances, such as animal control, private partnerships with not-for-profit groups may be preferred to for-profit companies. Whatever way you look at it, there are numerous examples, such as the ownership and management of Maramec Spring Park near St. James by the private, not-for-profit James Foundation, where privatization can provide better services at lower costs for Missourians. Just play golf at Forest Park to see the evidence.

David Stokes is the director of local government policy at the Show-Me Institute, which promotes market solutions for Missouri public policy.

About the Author

David Stokes
David Stokes was a policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute from 2007 to 2014 and was director of development from 2014 to 2016.