The current neoliberal consensus on economics holds that markets are the most natural and fairest basis for an economy and that private enterprise is the most efficient institutional structure for production. Therefore, any deviation from private ownership requires justification with very good reasons. Thus the manufacturing of consumer goods, for example, should (“Naturally!” “Of course!”) be done by privately-owned corporations, but it is acceptable for, say, the military to be public, because we can come up with good national defense and security reasons for doing so. (Although even in the military as much as possible should be privatized, and so unfortunately the manufacture of weaponry and, increasingly, military functions themselves, are done through private enterprises). Many forms of infrastructure -- roads, airports, schools -- are often thought to meet the bar for public provision too (but again, as much as possible should be privatized). But not much else is accepted as “naturally” public. Even our the votes in our elections are counted by private companies.
Thus the default position is that private ownership of society’s production apparatus is normal, and proposals to the contrary have to meet a very high burden of proof to be acceptable.
OK, for sake of argument, let’s accept that for the moment. Even if we do, I still think there’s good reason for the following industries to be publicly owned, in whole or in part (I’m sure there are others sectors that would benefit from public ownership, or partial public ownership; this list is meant to be illustrative, not exhaustive):
The military: for security reasons as already noted, with no privatized functions at all; defense contractors should be nationalized too.
Courts, prisons, and police: justice is a public good. Period.
Elections and vote counting: democracy is a public good. Period.
Banking and finance: given how important finance is, and how bad private ownership has been for the public at large -- remember the crash of 2008? -- all banks, stock brokerages, and other financial firms should be made into public entities, owned locally or nationally as appropriate, with rigorous supervision.
Energy: Energy -- oil, gasoline, coal, nuclear, hydro, solar, bio, etc. -- provides the fuel and electricity that makes the whole economy run. It is therefore inherently a matter of public concern. This is magnified by the fact that private energy companies are a huge cause of our greatest looming threat, climate change, and have a stranglehold on our legislatures and are preventing change. All hydrocarbon companies should be nationalized immediately, and other forms of energy be made into public utilities under strict pubic watch; and sustainable form of energy such as wind, solar power should receive huge public subsidies.
Education -- a country can’t remain a democracy without an informed citizenry, so schooling from kindergarten through PhD should be public.
Transportation -- governments have always provided the necessary infrastructure to make transportation systems work, from roads and bridges and highways to railways and seaports and airports. Partial or full public ownership of airlines, railways, subways, light rail, and bus systems helps to make the smooth and comfortable flow of people and products easier.
Communication and Media -- the best media companies in the world are not the private ones like Fox but the public ones like the BBC. As social networking advances, I think that we are also going to find that the public equivalents of iTunes, Facebook, and JSTOR will be needed to make information widely available to the people who will do the most with it.
Now, when I say “public ownership” here I don’t mean “totalitarian state control of a command economy like the Soviet Union had.” There are many forms of public and semi-public ownership, including utilities, independent public corporations (like the Federal Reserve in the United states or the BBC in Great Britain), local and municipally-owned enterprises (like local savings-and-loans), worker-owned cooperatives, and more. So if your first thought is to scream the words “Pinko commie socialist” at me, take a step back, count to ten, and go ahead and open your mind up to new ideas. I know you have a mind, because you’re reading this, and now is the time to use it: our world is in trouble, and the main source of that is the private ownership of the means of production, so let’s all work together to get creative here, OK?
In fact, rather than just providing better reasons for a larger public economic sphere, we should ask: why is it that only public ownership of society’s productive capacities should face such a high burden of proof? Shouldn’t it be the case that, for any particular sector, we adopt the forms of economic organization that brings the most benefits to the public at large? Shouldn’t we be open-minded, experimental, and empirical about specific forms of company organization, rather than simply and unreflectively default to one norm? Shouldn’t we flexibly endorse the most beneficial, most productive, least polluting, least destructive forms of economic arrangements? Maybe in some cases private enterprise is indeed best; maybe in some the public utility form of ownership is best; maybe is some cooperatives are best; maybe in some local community control is best; maybe in some nationalization is best (certainly for the military, and perhaps for many others too).
So let’s reverse the question: rather than only requiring good reasons to warrant public ownership, maybe we should require private ownership to provide warrant with good reasons too. Justify your existence, Mr. Capitalist: why, in every case, in every sector, in every industry, should society allow private ownership of the productive enterprises that create our goods and services, provide our jobs and incomes, and in fact shape so much of modern life? Why should something so important be entrusted to people who otherwise have no accountability to the public at large? Who have very little oversight by the communities, countries, and peoples who are most directly affected by how businesses produce and distribute their goods and services? I mean, the economy belongs to all of us, why should we let you play in it?
More concretely, what I’d like to see is an explicit statement of justification for the private ownership required of every company that exists: they should have to account, in numbers as well as with explanation, for how the fact that society entrusts them with the privilege of ownership is a benefit to the public at large. And this should be done before public boards consisting of citizens, chosen by lottery to serve as the representatives of the public interest for a year or so (and paid for their time). They would be like long-standing juries passing judgment on economic enterprises. And these boards should have the power to review all applications, and to revoke privates incorporation charters and convert them into cooperatives or utilities or whatever other form they think best, when, from the public’s point of view, a company’s activities or organizational structure no longer accorded with the public good, in their judgment. And that would be a good start to creating an economy that benefits everyone, and not just those at the top who run the show.