Saturday, 15 January 2011

"Thinking the unthinkable"

Over the last half century, a number of political and economic sacred cows have come to reside in the UK. Perhaps the biggest is "private good, public bad": things always go better when in the hands of private individuals and companies. We all know that, don't we? Why? Well competition is introduced, which drives down costs and encourages innovation, etc. etc.

But of course, for some industries, that "competition" looks largely notional. In the case of the railways and power companies, for example. And we all know that the government puts much more into running the railways now than it did when it was nationalized. And it had to step in when Railtrack went bust. The service remains an expensive disaster for consumers. So much for efficiency. etc.

When this ongoing disaster is pointed out, private ownership is defended on the grounds that the privatizations was mishandled, or done in the wrong sort of way, or the companies run badly, whatever. When publicly run industries don't fare well, on the other hand, well that's just because they are publicly, run, isn't it, rather than run in the wrong sort of way? That must be true, mustn't it? Because as we all know, "private good, public bad".

My question is, why has it become the case that even to raise the suggestion that, say, the railways should renationalized is now unthinkable for most people? Why, when people consider how the problems might be fixed, does that option never even get considered? Is it really because the arguments and evidence for private ownership are so very good? (if so, why are so many other successful railways either state run or primarily state owned?)

I can't see that the arguments and evidence do favour private ownership particularly (though I admit I am no expert). Yet, even within the ranks of the Labour party, renationalizing rail would typically be considered a joke. This, I suspect, has little to do with evidence and argument, and everything to do with the zeitgeist having been hijacked by those well-placed to make money out of privatization, ongoing private ownership and provision, etc.

A decade or two ago we used to be encouraged to "think the unthinkable", politically (Frank Field was asked to go away and do it, famously). Politicians were encouraged to "think outside the box", challenge the orthodoxies, etc. Invariably, this meant thinking of ways of privatizing or semi-privatizing provision of services, etc. Which was always recommended as being "more efficient" by consultancy companies.

Seems to me that so successful have free-market types been in shaping the zeitgeist that many of us self-censor when it comes to airing certain thoughts, much as we do when it comes to airing certain thoughts or questions about, say, religion (for fear of causing offence), or other cultures (because of political correctness). We bite our lips for fear of the eye-rolling ridicule and/or opprobrium we suppose will come our way: "You think the railways should nationalized? What are you, a political dinosaur? That's so ridiculous and behind the times! Everyone knows that doesn't work, for goodness sake! Public bad, private good! You twit."

I think we need to encourage a similar culture of "thinking the unthinkable" now, only in the other direction. I mean, why not nationalize the railways, actually? And the gas and electricity companies, come to that? Why is this not even worth considering as a possibility?

Any other suggestions re thinking the unthinkable? I am not necessarily saying we should nationalize these things, btw. I am just saying this: Let's ensure these ideas are at least allowed back into the public sphere. Let's not allow those with vested interests to push them out of public discourse. The only way that will happen is if individuals are brave enough to raise them.

If you suspect the Emperor might not be wearing any clothes, don't allow yourself to be pressured into not saying so.

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