WASHINGTON — Washington.--Selling the Brooklyn Bridge no longer seems like such a joke, not with serious public officials interested in selling, and sophisticated investors interested in buying or leasing such things as Los Angeles International Airport and the Massachusetts Turnpike.
Privatization -- of bridges, tunnels, water systems, prisons, sanitation services, bus systems, the towing of abandoned vehicles, janitorial services in public buildings, and much more -- is now a routine policy option rather than a libertarian's fantasy.
Los Angeles, which operates four airports, may not do what Britain did in 1987 with its major airports: sell them. New Jersey and Maryland may not privatize Newark and Baltimore-Washington airports, and Massachusetts may not encourage the American Trucking Association's interest in buying the Massachusetts Turnpike. But all these plausible ideas have been discussed, and they are not novel in a world in which $49 billion worth of state-owned assets were privatized in 1991 alone.
The 14-mile toll road now being privately built between Dulles Airport and Leesburg in Northern Virginia is in the American tradition. Prior to 1800 nearly two-thirds of all corporations founded in America were for building private toll roads.
Today there are four entwined reasons for privatizing what have been government activities: to raise cash, to improve the performance of government generally, to improve the performance of the particular institutions, and to improve the citizenry.
What government could not use an infusion of cash from the sale of assets? What government might not work better if it concentrated on fewer tasks? Allowing private investors to own and charge tolls on roads, bridges and tunnels cuts public maintenance costs and infrastructure investment needs, and puts those assets on the tax rolls.
Yale, which lost its previous president to major league baseball, is losing its current president to entrepreneur Chris Whittle's Edison Project. It envisions creating private, for-profit primary and secondary schools. The public education lobby is as appalled about this as any sclerotic semi-monopoly would be about the appearance of competition, but Mr. Whittle is just one facet of the turn toward the private sector. Baltimore is contracting with a Minneapolis firm to run nine of Baltimore's 178 public schools.
Michael Barone, author of "The Almanac of American Politics," notes that New York City's Catholic schools, with their central bureaucracy of 35 people, are out-performing the public schools with their 20,000 central bureaucrats, and he predicts that much the politics of the 1990s will be struggles "to reform those parts of the public sector that patently aren't functioning."
A pioneer of such politics was Margaret Thatcher. More than two-thirds of the industrial assets owned by the British state when she became prime minister in 1979 have been sold or are scheduled for sale. The government has netted 33 billion pounds, and 900,000 public jobs have become private.
When Mrs. Thatcher sold a million publicly-owned houses, thereby raising the house-owning percentage of the population from 52 to 66, her primary purpose was not the slimming of the state (although that was a sufficient reason for doing it). She wanted to improve the polity by broadening and deepening Britain's character as a "property-owning democracy." Her reasoning, which echoed America's Founders, was that social stability and prudence are enhanced when more and more people have a tangible stake in the system.
Her use of privatization to nurture democratic virtue included selling many state-owned industries -- British Petroleum, British Aerospace, British Gas, British Airways, Jaguar, Rolls-Royce, the national telephone network, electricity and water authorities, among others. State-owned British Steel was costing taxpayers a billion pounds a year. By 1989-90, it was private and made 733 million pounds.
The sale of shares in previously state-owned enterprises is one reason for this emblematic fact: During Mrs. Thatcher's term, the number of British people owning shares in industries surpassed the number of trade union members. Another emblem of her success was an eruption of colors: the front doors of now-privately owned homes were painted by owners interested in maintenance and individuality.
In America, privatization is part of our tradition of institutional diversity. Concern about government's cost and competence has vastly expanded the range of policies that are discussable. That is the good news amid the welter of bad news about government.
George Will is a syndicated columnist.