Imaginary markets & circular arguments

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POSTED: October 11, 2012

Privatisation has become an accepted part of the political landscape in many countries including Britain, although it is thankfully much less prevalent in Finland. Last week the Confederation of British Industries argued that the British government should privatise all motorways so that they can become toll-roads.

There are many problems with suggestions like this, and the ideas that fuel them, not the least of which is that they amount to flimsy euphemisms for bare-faced robbery. However, even if we were to decide that the process of stealing from the commons in order that the people who paid for it might be compelled to pay for it, is a good thing, other issues remain.

One important issue relates to the suggestion that this kind of robbery is, in some way, a mechanism for introducing “the discipline of the market-place” into moribund bureaucracies. This is, and cannot be, any “market” in motorways. Privately run roads with toll-booths operate as monopolies every bit as much as state-run motorways, just as privately run trains operate as effective monopolies every bit as much as British Rail did.

Indeed, the privatisation of the rail network in Britain shows how badly the belief in imaginary markets can turn out.

Why am I writing this?

Because I read an article in today’s Guardian that provided an illustration of this process in action: an illustration that was so magnificent in its stupidity that I wanted to archive it. The first two paragraphs of the article state that

Atos, the company contracted by the Department for Work and Pensions to carry out medical assessments of people claiming benefits, has subcontracted the NHS to carry out its consultations in Scotland in an unusual example of an outsourced contract being subcontracted back to a public organisation.

The decision has prompted questions from MPs over whether it represents value for public money for the state to contract work to a private company, if the company then in turn outsources the work back to the state sector.

The MPs are asking the wrong question. They should be asking: is the performance funny enough to qualify for an Arts Council grant, or do they need work on the act before resubmitting an application?

If you were frightened of clowns as a child…