Friday, 31 July 2009

This Week Ten Years Ago: (Private Vices, Public Virtues")

Gliding On: Playwright Roger Hall's characters came to epitomise the solid, decent - but uninspiring - central government bureaucracy. The Right dubbed them the "woolly-pulley brigade" after the sensible woollen pullovers Wellington civil servants wore to protect them against the capital's notorious southerlies.

POOR CHRISTINE RANKIN, reprimanded for displaying a lack of "financial discipline". It must be embarrassing, standing up there on your little WINZ podium, suffering our slings and arrows for the outrageous fortune expended on charter flights to Taupo. But for those of you experiencing a sense of grim satisfaction at the outcome of State Services Commissioner Wintringham’s inquiry, I have some bad news. Neither Ms Rankin, nor her reputation, are going to suffer the slightest long-term damage. Not where it counts. Not in the private sector.

For the past twenty years we have been told that the public service must follow the example set by private enterprise. To speed up the process, civil servants were transformed into objects of derision; figures of fun to be pilloried and laughed at. Sir Robert Jones liked to talk about the "grey shoes wearers". Richard Prebble laughed at the public servant’s fondness for "woolly pulleys". Even Bill Ralston was once moved to describe the Wellington of the early 1980s as a "grey, East European city". But it was the mild-mannered Roger Hall, who – in a caring way – inflicted the deepest wounds, with his hilarious play Glide Time and the Gliding On television series. And it still goes on. Only the other day, the Prime Minister, Mrs Shipley, was moved to remind her Federated Farmers audience of the bad old days when Social Welfare bureaucrats came to work in "walk-shorts and jandals".

It is a measure of what the Italian socialist, Antonio Gramsci, called "capitalist hegemony" that we take all this nonsense about the superior efficiency of the private sector seriously. The private sector is, by its very nature, inefficient. After all, what else is "profit" but the result of deliberately distorted pricing? Virtually any commercial service you care to name could be provided more cheaply if it were not for the private owners’ personal "cut".

Having trouble getting your head around this? Well, that’s the power of genuinely "hegemonic" institutions – in the end their arguments begin to sound a lot like "common sense".

To help you understand what I mean, consider the Mafia. In a recent newspaper article it was reported that thanks to the sterling efforts of the FBI, most of the great Mafioso crime families have been broken. This has led to a dramatic fall in the prices of the goods and services formerly under Mafia control – garbage disposal, the garment trade, building construction, etc. To extract their "profits" the criminal entrepreneurs of the Mafia imposed a sort of "tax" on the businesses they controlled. To pay this "tax" (and continue to make a profit of their own) businesspeople were forced to build it into their overall cost structures. The near elimination of Mafia extortion on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States has made life a lot cheaper for everyone.

That is what profit really is – a private "tax" on consumers. And that is why the New Right hates publicly owned businesses with such passion. Not because they are inefficient and wasteful, but because they have no need to "make a profit". They just can’t bear the fact that properly run public enterprises will always be cheaper and more efficient than their private sector rivals.

What’s more, the key motivation of public enterprise – to provide the best possible service at the lowest possible cost – instils a set of values radically at odds with the selfishness and greed of private sector players. Genuine public "servants" may not wear smart suits, or prattle on about "teamwork", but neither do they expect – or get – six-figure salaries, five star accommodation, and chartered air travel.

It’s private – not public – taxes that pay for those things. (Unless, of course, you’re Christine Rankin!)

This essay was originally published in The Dominion of Friday, 6 August 1999.

No comments: