What is wrong, and why we can’t seem to fix it

Throughout most of my life I have been living under conservative governments, and the nicest way I can find to describe political conservatism is to say that it embodies the popular phrase ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. However, as we all know there are many things wrong at present, and they need fixing. No amount of ignoring them will make them go away. This blog is about those awkward facts of world that won’t go away and which political conservatism won’t make go away either.

What I’m going to aim to do is post a blog once a week, on a Friday, so you can digest it over the weekend. The next week’s blog will either be the next in my series, or a discussion of issues that have arisen from the comments.

I’m going to have a very strict comments policy, comment will only be accepted if they are intelligent and polite contributions to discussion around the topic of the post. Everything else will be moderated.

If you find a blog here sympathetic, you might consider reading the blogs from the beginning, as they are supposed to be a more or less continuous argument.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Grumble 3: the preference for private enterprise

I have already written about this in a previous blog, but I wanted to extend on my observations in more grumbling manner.

When I was growing up in Britain in the 1960s and 70s the government, or different parts of government, seemed to run most things. For example, with gas, there was the Gas Board. If you wanted to get connected you rang up the Gas Board, they connected you. There was one tariff and everybody paid the same price. People complained about the service all the time and Monty Python’s Flying Circus lampooned the bureaucracy associated with public utilities in the ‘New Cooker Sketch’ (Series 2, Episode 1), but how does the privatised world of modern utilities compare?

Well my experience of government-run services was better than anything I have known since (in the UK and Australia) with privatised utilities. For one thing then you didn’t have to spend hours trying to decipher pricing-schemes from different companies, all of which are designed to mislead. I don’t actually want a super deal (with some ridiculous strings attached, such as it only applies if I use gas between midnight and 1am in September). I actually want to phone up the one company, get connected and pay what everyone else is paying. I do not want to have to answer the door, or get unsolicited telephone calls, three times a week to hear salespeople trying to sell me some alternative package, and if I do get poor service I want the company not to contact me, rather than phoning up with questionnaires and asking how my experience of their service is going.

On a similar note you could also ask British people whether they preferred the much-grumbled at British Rail (1948-1994) to the post-privatised world of the various new railway companies?

An obvious thing for governments to run is access to the internet (as long as they don’t try to censor it, of course). I’ve lost cost of the number of times I’ve had to change ISP and e-mail just because stupid companies decide to go out of business or merge just to inconvenience me.

Another is insurance, if the governments insured everybody then they would have so many clients that premiums would be really low.

In fact any sort of privatisation annoys me intensely, if the government isn’t running schools, hospitals, utilities, the post office, what’s the point of it? No-one can feel any sense of identity with a myriad of merging and splitting private enterprises each of which will be known under a new corporate branding in five minutes time. Private enterprise seems to me to be expensive luxury that societies which don’t have much in the way of external threats can indulge in, but which isn’t a very efficient way of doing anything, especially in the world of ecological melt-down that is just around the corner. It wasn’t private enterprise that won the Second World War, after all.

As I have argued throughout these blogs, we are approaching a point at which ecological breakdown will result in massive societal upheavals. In these circumstances I anticipate that government will once again assume most of the responsibilities in the provision of services for their people, because private enterprise, fatally hamstrung by having always to make a profit, will not able to. I also anticipate that government will eventually employ most people on social wages.

The point of this train of thinking is not to argue for state control as a good in itself (I wouldn’t want to see the government running everything), but as a obvious historical outcome of the changes that are already happening in the world. Dystopian science fiction and common sense both agree that at no time can people identify emotionally with companies or corporations. In the First World War thousands of young Australian men volunteered for service and travelled to the Middle East and the Western Front to fight for the British Empire. I can’t think of a similar instance in history where so many people volunteered to serve in the armed forces of an entity that was not a national government or a body aiming to become a national government. This is because anyone can see that only a national government, or similar body, can represent the people as a whole.

Another reason why private enterprises can’t command loyalty is that each one only deals with a single facet of people’s life experience. People deal with many different private sector organisations and, even though many may be owned by the same corporation, they are still experienced as separate organisations. I suppose we might anticipate the emergence of lifestyle corporations or some such in the future… (shudder).

And again with private enterprises the deal is that you are expected to dispense with them if they offer poor service. For example, true to my status as an inner-city latte-sipping elite, I am a fan of Apple products: computers, iPods, iPhones; but if Apple products don’t suit my needs either because of price, or design, then I use products from other companies. Brand loyalty only extends to products.

The point is that with private sector organisations you only have obligations to them, and they to you, if you enter into a contract, which you don’t have to do. You are born into obligations towards government, to keep the peace, obey laws, pay taxes, but equally governments have obligations towards you, however much free-market-mania tries to remove these.

It would be my analysis that people at the moment are angry and fearful, and one of the principal reasons for this is the provision of services by the state has been wound back and wound back in the last couple of generations, and, partly as a result of this, people’s lives have become more uncertain and insecure. One of the symptoms of this, in Australia, at any rate, is the blurring that has occurred between state-provided and private enterprises. For example, in Australia the States provide public education, but the Federal Government also subsidises private school, so the public education brand is tarnished by the state itself, a ridiculous state of affairs.

In addition to such foolish policies, the market-worshipping right, in all English-speaking countries, has persuaded people that the problems they have in life are due to excessive government interference in their lives and excessive taxation. And the remedies proposed make the affliction worse.

This madness has gone so far that the right in the US are now attacking the Environmental Protection Agency, as though it is in the public interest to return to the days of unregulated environmental pollution.

Next Week: Not Very Good

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