The Proper Scope of Government: Theory and an Application to Prisons


Hart, Oliver, Andrei Shleifer, and Robert W Vishny. 1997. “The Proper Scope of Government: Theory and an Application to Prisons.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 112 (4): 1127-1161.


When should a government provide a service in-house, and when should it contract out provision? We develop a model in which the provider can invest in improving the quality of service or reducing cost. If contracts are incomplete, the private provider has a stronger incentive to engage in both quality improvement and cost reduction than a government employee has. However, the private contractor’s incentive to engage in cost reduction is typically too strong because he ignores the adverse effect on noncontractible quality. The model is applied to understanding the costs and beneŽts of prison privatization.


Reprinted in Michael A. Crew and David Parker, eds., Developments in the Economics of Privatization and Regulation, Edward Elgar Publishing Inc., 2008.

Last updated on 08/01/2012