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The Center for Critical Democracy Studies

Demos21: Chiara Cordelli on the Privatized State

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On Tuesday, November 30, 2021, Demos21, a series of lectures, roundtables and workshops organized by AUP’s Center for Critical Democracy Studies (CCDS), hosted its fifth event of the academic year. Guest speaker Professor Chiara Cordelli from the University of Chicago led a discussion on privatization and democracy. The hybrid event saw audience members attend both in person in CCDS’s conference hall in the Quai d’Orsay Learning Commons and online.

Cordelli discussed a chapter in her recent award-winning book, The Privatized State. She raised questions about legitimacy in the context of transferring public duties to private actors, using examples such as the privatization of the military and penal systems in the United States and healthcare in the United Kingdom. She explained that such examples are components in a broader transformative process that warrants critique. In essence, Cordelli seeks to address whether the privatization of state functions is objectionable and, if so, on what basis. Her work continues an academic conversation that includes authors such as Suzanne Mettler, Jody Freeman and John D. Michaels.

In her research, she found that even in cases where privatization improves upon the public provision of services, there is still a strong argument to be made that the private actor lacks the same legitimacy as its public counterpart: that is, the moral right and standing to impose certain decisions on others. In reaching this conclusion, Cordelli engaged in a series of hypothetical scenarios to demonstrate what she considered an illegitimate actor, invoking examples of corruption and espionage to demonstrate relevant theoretical concepts. Cordelli used case studies to further ground her work, including an examination of the relationship between US welfare legislation and the for-profit firm WorkOpts, which was contracted by the US government to assist people in finding work and which had, therefore, competing commitments to the state and its shareholders. In studies of the program, it has been concluded that, in order to meet both sets of obligations, the company reverted to behavior that served only clients who were easiest to place in jobs.

Ultimately, Cordelli argued that private actors can fail to exercise their power legitimately even when they have been legitimately authorized and that this provides an important reason to limit certain forms of privatization, even when privatization could lead to desirable outcomes. After her presentation, Cordelli took part in a Q&A. Attendees raised questions about how her research might be applicable in the context of education, whether private actors could be in some ways more desirable agents than their public counterparts on the basis of their easy removal, and whether this analysis was uniquely applicable to democratic societies.

You can watch the full lecture and Q&A in the video below.