Public Values

This is Privateering

George Lakoff proposes a new way to frame privatization and contracting out.

Lakoff uses the term privateering to recall the lawless days of private warfare on the high Ish Theilheimer

American cognitive scientist and framing guru George Lakoff says that an important part of winning the battle against privatization is to name it and frame it correctly. To that end, he has proposed a new way to use an old word – "privateering" – in order to invoke a negative frame when citizens are asked to consider shifting important responsibilities from public to private hands. In part of a wide-ranging interview with staff at the news website's November Persuading to Win: 2008 symposium, Lakoff shared his views, on privateering for the benefit of readers of This interview has been posted to YouTube. Although Lakoff's references draw on his US experience, there are obvious parallels to events in Canada.

Here is a transcipt of George Lakoff's advice:

What we discovered was that there are many cases where government has a moral mission, and you can't just privatize. What has happened under Reagan, the first Bush, and George W Bush – especially under George W Bush – is a great deal of getting rid of the function of the moral mission of government. And it's done not through legislation, but through budgetary measures. Cutting budgets. Reassigning people.

So you go to the food and drug administration and you reassign the people who are there to monitor food safety, or there to monitor drug safety. And it turns out, you don't have enough people to do it. So what happens is, government doesn't go away, but it is shifted to the private sector. And you say, "OK, we're going to let the drug companies monitor their own drug tests." OK? Now, what happens then is the government doesn't disappear. The companies now govern you. They govern your life. They determine whether you live or die, and whether you can afford your drugs, or whether the drugs work.

Now, when that happens, the government – the federal government – is accountable to the public, but the drug companies are not. The drug companies are accountable to their investors. And, as a result, in many cases, the drug companies fudge the data. And consequently, people died. That is, they wanted to keep up their investments, keep the drugs going when they were dangerous, And, as a result, people died. And a lot of the cases in the courts now, and the cases that were settled then, were about that.

And we've seen the same thing happen with meat packing plants and so on, where government inspectors were cut out of the budget, and then that meat packing plant did not inspect properly. And people died.

This is what I call "privateering". That is, it's a case where government has a moral mission. It's supposed to be carried out. The people who are carrying it out are dropped for budgetary reasons: "we're wasting taxpayers' money, we should cut taxes", right? That this is an entitlement we shouldn't have- that's the idea. Then, the result of that is the moral mission still has to be carried out. So you then have the private industry carrying out what should be a moral mission of government.

Only they don't have a moral mission. They have a mission of maximizing profit. And they're not accountable to the public. They're accountable to their investors. And disasters happen. This is privateering.

Privatization vs. Public Values Frame
  Make government run like business / Fulfill moral mission of government - protection
  Privateering / Public responsibility

Posted: December 05, 2008

  Public services
  Voices of privatization

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