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Plague of Privatization is Robbing Our Citizens
Published on Sunday, January 14, 2001 in the Toronto Star
Plague of Privatization is Robbing Our Citizens
by Dalton Camp
 
A friend, standing in line at a railway station washroom in Britain, observed the following sign, erected by the management: ``Due to service improvement, there are reduced toilet facilities on this floor.''

This, in the lexicon of the academic community, is known as ``plastic speech,'' in which vacuity is employed with the intention of assuring the ignorant and the helpless that someone is in control and all is well, all evidence to the contrary. My favourite has always been that Secretary of Defence Robert MacNamara during the rigorous brutality of the ancien regime in Vietnam against the enemy: ``Autocratic methods within a democratic framework were required to restore order.''

These methods, under the rubric of ``autocratic methods'' permitted torture, the routine abasement of human dignity and worth, but are justified by bureaucratic vapidity.

British Rail, once a wholly owned public railway, has been sacrificed to the gods of privatization. Instead of one publicly-owned railway, privatization gave Britons 25 new railways. These, Britons were assured, would provide improved service, healthy competition, lower fares and further delights.

The result has been chaos. Apart from much plastic speech, there was an awesome decline in the quality of passenger service, frequent delays and cancellations, not to mention the increased danger to life and limb now provided by a public service driven by the lust for private profit.

And profits there are; privatized railroading has proved a gravy train for the investor. As for the public, its rewards have been few and, of course, the government is still shelling out millions of pounds in subsidy for maintenance and other infrastructure costs. The British experience speaks eloquently to the high public cost of free market capitalism.

Consider the illusionary bonanza of deregulation of the airline industry both in Canada and the United States. While the public was promised the benefits of open skies, which would include more competition, lower fares, and improved service, Canada now has a high cost, non-competitive industry in which flying has become a luxury. In the United States, where its citizens are raised to believe that patriotism and capitalism are synonyms, air travel has become a health hazard and will soon become a near monopoly business. Given the lack of regulation, America's open skies have become filled with bankrupt airlines and high altitude mergers.

We could, I suppose, travel by bus. But could we live without power? The citizens of California are in the process of finding out. Four years ago, the California state legislature voted unanimously to deregulate its power industry given the assurance, in the language of The New York Times, ``that market forces would bring power costs down.'' This was, The Times adds, ``a dramatic miscalculation as it turned out.''

As of this hour, California's two largest private utilities are ``sliding into bankruptcy.'' Responding to the growing crisis, the government of the state, proclaiming deregulation a failure, has promised, in The Times' description, ``to reassert the state's control over its power market.'' This would include steps to control power plants, grids, and prices. Privatizers and free market theorists will complain of these developments, but Californians will likely think it better than sitting in the dark.

The plague of privatization has robbed the citizens of their joint properties - railroads, airlines, air terminals, ``the King's highways'' and public space. And as its dark twin, deregulation, brings only misery to the general population, someone might think to ask if there is any mechanism or method of accountability somewhere. John Locke put it very simply: Members of the society authorize others to act for them ``to make laws . . . as the public good of the society shall require.'' But then, we have this spell whereby the legislators make laws only as the private good may require.

All this may have been more tolerable were it not for the fact that so much was done in the name of a dubious philosophy, part of which argued that government could not serve the public interest nearly as well as could private interests.

If we have learned anything, out of all this misadventure, inconvenience and risky business, it is that it just ain't so.

Dalton Camp is a political commentator.

Copyright 1996-2001. Toronto Star Newspapers Limited

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