Monday, March 1, 2010

Too Important To Be Left To Profit

In the past couple of decades, one particular concept has been steadily gaining currency among some parts of the political spectrum - the idea that anything governments can do, corporations can do better. The purer forms of libertarianism are based on this, and tend to postulate anemic governments that oversee little more than national defense. Everything else in society, from education to roads to electricity, would be provided by for-profit agencies at direct cost to the consumer.

To some people, this sounds good in theory. Libertarianism seems to be especially popular in the United States, which I think owes a lot to the nature of American colonization and the natural bounty of that country, and as a result the United States' culture and politics have been influenced by the "rugged individualism" meme for centuries. As far as I see it, though, the fact of the matter is that the utility and capability of action for a purely libertarian society decreases as that society's complexity increases. That kind of extremely loose "government" is easily plausible in a frontier setting composed of homesteads and small crossroads towns, but as cities rise and populations swell they tend to lose some of their lustre. Why?

Because despite what some more devoted libertarians might tell you, governments are not uniformly tyrannical and evil. Governments are an expression of the team-building spirit, a confirmation that many people in organized groups can - in the proper spheres of activity - accomplish far more than individuals working alone. Ultimately, the way I see it, there are some things that governments should manage - some things that are too important to be hitched to the profit motive.

Perhaps the most contentious example of this today is the ongoing health care situation in the United States. The US is pretty much unique among wealthy Western nations in that it lacks a universal health care system - and this leaves people a great deal more precariously balanced. While my health care and that of other Ontarians is underwritten by OHIP and paid for by provincial tax revenue and federal transfer payments, Americans must rely on purely private medical insurance - mostly as a perk of employment, but sometimes privately purchased.

The problem that this system runs into is a result of the intersection of two different priorities. While the overriding goal of health care should be to ensure that as many people as possible are as healthy as possible, the overriding goal of a for-profit corporation is to earn as much profit as possible. Health care costs tend to skew to the expensive side, particularly when it comes to unusual or life-threatening issues. While a for-profit corporation theoretically could make good on that social responsibility and pay out its claims in good faith, the cold equations of the business frequently result in companies trying to pay out as little as possible to bulk up their bottom line. This account from Denver's Westword News is only the most spectacular example I've seen of it.

Transit can fall into a similar hole. Recently, ever since the Toronto Transit Commission's $0.25 fare increase and lingering anti-union sentiments have brought popular indignation against the TTC to a boiling point, I've heard more and more people suggesting that the TTC be privatized. Supposedly this would make everything better - I don't think so. Again, this falls into the intersection of two different priorities. The overriding goal of transit is to move people as efficiently as possible. This ran in parallel with the profit motive in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, when it seemed as if every city in North America had a privately-run streetcar system, because at that point there was no recourse to private transportation. Cars were still a toy for the wealthy, interurban expressways were a thing of the future, and so if the average person wanted to get anywhere, the only real option was a nickel for the conductor.

Toronto has experienced this directly. Streetcars have run in Toronto since September 11, 1861 - what an unfortunate date for a sesquicentennial, incidentally - and for the first sixty years the streetcar system was operated by private companies under license from the city. Things weren't all that bad to begin with, but as the end of the Toronto Railway Company's thirty-year license approach, it began to turtle. Losses in other railway ventures by the TRC's owner left limited funds to invest in the system, which may have played a significant role in that company's refusal to serve newly-annexed communities beyond the 1894 borders of the City of Toronto, despite the city government's order. This led to the formation of the Toronto Transportation Commission in 1921, which assumed responsibility for all the disparate streetcar systems within Toronto and began the work of extending the network to new communities and knitting it into a cohesive whole.

It's likely for the best that this happened when it did, as it insulated Toronto's transit system from postwar shocks. In the late 1940s and through the 1950s, private ownership of cars became mainstream, and more and more of the riders that transit operators had relied on deserted their systems. The result on behalf of these operators was, unsurprisingly, a slashing of service in an attempt to stem the fare hemorrhage. Ultimately, this widening income gap played a significant role in the diminution of public transportation in the mid-20th century, as private companies could no longer make a profit from it while cities were as yet unwilling or unable to pick up the tab for the service themselves. Most were reduced to purely bus operations, as they were seen as less expensive to run - of North America's vast network of streetcar systems, only those in Toronto and New Orleans survived in their original forms, and even in New Orleans a once-vast system was pared down to a single line.

In the end, what I think is that the profit motive is an exceptional force when it's aimed in the right direction. When it comes to agencies that have as their goal the public good, the quest for profit tends to work against itself. For the most part, health care and public transit are not intrinsically profitable - and, in my opinion, nor should they be. If people only took actions that were assured to leave them richer than they were before, on the whole the world would be much poorer.

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