Economics, like fashion, has its hot ideas. Among the hottest ideas of 1982 was the theory of contestable monopoly, described as an ‘uprising’ by its leading proponent William Baumol. To quote the summary in Wikipedia
Its fundamental features are low barriers to entry and exit; in theory, a perfectly contestable market would have no barriers to entry or exit (“frictionless reversible entry” in economist William Brock’s terms). Contestable markets are characterized by “hit and run” competition; if a firm in a contestable market raises its prices much beyond the average price level of the market, and thus begins to earn excess profits, potential rivals will enter the market, hoping to exploit the price level for easy profit. When the original incumbent firm(s) respond by returning prices to levels consistent with normal profits, the new firms will exit. Because of that, even a single-firm market can show highly competitive behavior
Contestable monopoly theory didn’t stay at the top of the hit parade for long. In theoretical terms, it was hard to formulate the hit-and-run analysis in the language of game theory, which was beginning its rise to dominance around the same time. More importantly, at least from my viewpoint, the predictions turned out wrong, most notably in relation to US airline deregulation, which was the primary motivation for the theory. Routes served by only one or two airlines were characterized by higher fares than more competitive routes, and “raids” of the type described by the theory were rarely if ever observed. Looking at Google Scholar, I found hardly any recent papers making use of contestable monopoly theory (feel free to point some out!)
Yet an examination of the policy statements of Australian governments would make it appear that contestability is a central idea in economic theory. Google reveals the term applied to electricity and water consumers, vocational education (a spectacular disaster), the Department of Finance, and even Tasmania.
It seems that contestability, having died as an economic theory in its native country, has been resurrected as a piece of policy jargon in Australia. Presumably, it is supposed to carry with it the positive connotations of the theoretical term. In practice, however, it’s one of the long list of euphemisms for “privatisation”, a word that is almost never used nowadays, except by its opponents.