Monday, February 11, 2008

Public vs. private ownership

Ownership of what; that is the key sub question. Canal systems or boats, for example. Having waded into the economic fray, I thought I should think this through a bit...

I 'believe' in the free market; that is, I believe that it exists, not that it is necessarily, always, an unqualifiedly good thing. But I do believe that it is an enevitable manifestation of individual human freedom, which I do value very highly. People, if not prevented, will always want to make exchanges with each other for perceived mutual benefit. To prevent this would require enormous, intolerable oppression. I'm with Robert Nozick and Friedrich von Hayek on that one.

But - and it's a big but, and where I part company with Nozick - I do believe that the state, acting on behalf of all of us members of society, has not only the right, but the duty, to mitigate the unequal and frequently unfair effects of the free market, through regulation and redistributive taxation.

More importantly - bear with me - from the boats and canals point of view, is the question of efficiency. On top of its being a fundamental expression of individual freedom (which might be reason enough in itself) Hayek makes a very persuasive case for the free market being the most efficient means of distributing goods. In short, he suggests that the millions of interactions and exchanges that take place every day embody far, far more knowledge than any state planner or government department could ever accrue; knowledge about what goods are required, to what quality, where and when, and how much people are prepared to pay, for example. (There is a flaw in this argument, which is that the needs of people without the ability to pay are not taken into account. Hence a role for the state in providing them with the means to pay and thus to play their part in the market along with everyone else.)

Starting with Margaret Thatcher, whose minister Keith Joseph was reputedly so taken with Hayek that he made The Road To Serfdom required reading for all the civil servants in his department, but continuing to the present day, governments have been so smitten with this argument that they have sought to extend the free market into all areas of provision. Initially this was through privatisation (and anyone who remembers what BT was like before privatisation may not think this is always a terrible thing); the literal selling off of state owned assets into private hands (initially, and famously, to private individuals, but all to soon to be agglomerated into corporate holdings); followed more recently by arms length organisations, pseudo markets (e.g. within the health service and local government), Public Private Partnerships and the Private Finance Initiative. This, it appears, is not a good thing, insofar as it appears, on the evidence, to lead to deteriorating services at an ever increasing cost to the taxpayer.

For all its faults, it would appear preferable that British Waterways remain wholly public. Any kind of PPP arrangement, where private companies nominally (but experience shows, in the end, rarely if ever actually) take the risks, and invariably take the profits, assured by the prices they're paid by the government to take on the job in the first place, appears to be a recipe for inefficiency and expense (viz. the Tube). The breaking up and selling off of what surely only functions as an entire system would lead only to cherry picking and asset stripping.

But what I really want to talk about, and the reason I began this rant, is boats. In particular, historic boats; historic boats of the kind withdrawn by BW from their auctions last year on the grounds that they should go not to private owners but only to recognised or bona fide charities, voluntary groups etc (I don't have the exact wording, but you probably know what I'm talking about). This, is seems to me, is wrong in principle and absolute madness in reality. This is an area where the free market really does work. Go to the rally at Braunston and look at all the beautifully restored boats - at least 90% of them privately owned. Go to a waterways museum - a bona fide cause - and look at the boats rotting and written off for the lack of the funds to restore them. OK, if you let a boat go into private hands, there is always the chance that it will be wrecked, deliberately or accidentally, by its new owner. But most people who seek to buy a historic boat these days do so with the desire and intention to restore it (even the indignities inflicted upon poor Dover are largely superficial).

OK, private owners may run out of money, or time, or enthusiasm - in which case they may be more than happy to sell their project on to someone with more of all three. When a museum runs out of money, they have no choice but to leave the boat to its fate - their constitutions and charity law won't generally allow them to sell assets onto the private market. Of course there is a place for museums, and they should be properly funded. They may well have a role in preserving unique examples (although there are also cases where only private dedication has achieved this) and, most importantly, in presenting these to the public and in education. But it is madness (I suggest) to say that historic boats are safer in their hands than in the hands of dedicated, nay, obsessed, private individuals.

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