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Posts tagged Sergio Méndez

Property to the People: the Leftist case for privatization

For those who may be interested, here’s a bit more about my troubles with the public utilities, and a reply to my friend Sergio Méndez’s comments.

A new router was ordered and arrived some days ago (you may have guessed as much from the increased volume of posts), and thanks to Microsoft Corporation decision to exit the wireless market, I managed to get a faster, more secure, and much more reliable wireless LAN (802.11g secured with WPA, nosy) in my house for fire-sale prices.

The water is back on, for the time being at least, and the power surges have–as far as I can tell–stopped. On the other hand, they didn’t stop before they had also fried my cable modem–meaning that for a while I was not only without a router, but not even able to plug my laptop in directly for Internet access for even a limited part of the day. Thanks, tax-supported utilities!

We’re renting the equipment from Comcast, so I took it into their payment center; they swapped it out for a new one with no questions asked and at no charge.

Meanwhile, the road outside of my house is still torn up, a month and a half after they ripped the pavement up.

I say this by way of an entre into replying to Sergio’s comments on my post. He quite rightly prods me about what is said and what is left unsaid in my post:

Charles, with all due respect…Do you actually think it will have been different if the public roads and electricity company was privately owned?

Short answer: yes. Longer answer: it would be a little bit different no matter what, but a lot depends on what is being envisioned as the form of private ownership.

I think that what Sergio has in mind here is something like the wave of IMF-driven privatization schemes for government utilities in Latin American and sub-Saharan Africa, and the Republicans’ idea of a programme for privatization in America (those Republicans, at least, who still harbor faint dreams of being something other than shameless lackeys for the Bush Administration’s economic royalism). I can sympathize with having a lot of misgivings over the idea of privatization if that’s the only kind that’s on offer; and in the present political environment (where brazen Mussolinism passes for free marketeering) it may very well be the only kind that’s likely to happen in the near future. But it’s worth remembering that privatization just means the transfer of businesses and resources from government control to control by individual citizens or groups of them–which does not necessarily mean selling them off in sweetheart deals to large corporations. It could mean something quite different, and something very much more humane and empowering.

I’ll have more to say about that in a moment. But first I want to note an important aspect in which even traditional corporate-driven privatization of utilities would have made a difference to the sort of crap that government providers put us through. One of the arguments that people give all the time when they are arguing for nationalizing utility services is that utilities need to be provided by projects that are accountable to the people, and not to the bottom line; thus, they should be entrusted to the elected government in a liberal democratic polity, and not left to the hard-bitten world of corporate commerce. But this neglects an extremely important point: the degree to which being accountable to the bottom line makes them accountable to the public–at least if the public here is taken to mean you, the individual person having to deal with them, and not some Rousseauian mystification of the the general will. (Since I entirely lack a general will, I’ll leave any questions concerning it to other, more enlightened commentators.)

Don’t get me wrong: corporations can be huge assholes. In this vale of tears, there are people who are foolish, short-sighted, irresponsible, avaricious, or cruel, and no small number of them seem to be in the world of business. I realize all this, and I want a radically different world; the red in my flag means socialism. But the black in my flag means anarchism, and I don’t see any reason to think that people in government bureaucracies would be somehow more angelic than those in corporate bureaucracies, so I think the important question to ask is one of incentives. And if you look at the incentives, the facts are that you, personally, can make a difference on the margin when you are dealing with a private company, whereas you can’t with the government. Think of it this way: who is going to be more accountable to you and more ready to help you with your problems–someone who could lose $60/month right now if you’re unsatisfied, or who has the power to take your money for the service whether you like it or not, who was appointed by some other person, who in turn might lose your one vote amongst the thousands or millions that determine whether or not they will keep their job–if you’re so pissed off that one or two or four years from now the crappy service from your public utilities happens to be the deciding factor for your vote? (And who, by the way, will suffer no marginal loss whatsoever of power or responsibility or income for having lost one vote that they had before….)

Let alone if you happen to live in a Black neighborhood (or a working-class white neighborhood), or if you are a woman, or a member of any number of other groups who are drastically underrepresented in the government and who are often dismissed or marginalized in the political process.

Of course, you might object that these are all reasons for democratic political reform: if it’s so hard for individual citizens (especially those without established political connections) to make any difference to how government-run utilities do business, then why not make politicians more accountable to the citizens, by instituting reforms like public comment periods, shorter election cycles, term limits, citizen recalls, voter initiatives, and so on? Well, fine–and I think these would all be laudable reforms. But if you get to change around the constitution of the government for hypothetical purposes, then I should certainly be able to put forward ideas based on a radically environment in terms of the coordination of businesses, private ownership, and privatization of government resources. If we’re talking about instituting fundamental reforms, then why not also talk about what privatization would be like with fundamental reforms to how services are privatized and who gets chances to buy up the resources?

Imagine what it would be like if privatization meant that you and your neighbors (organized into a neighborhood co-operative) owned the street in front of your house? If privatized parks meant selling land to the Trust for Public Land rather than corporate developers, or simply donating park land as public property (instead of government property: for the difference, see Roderick Long‘s essay, In Defense of Public Space)? If privatized water meant that the local government would sell different parts and aspects its water works to a half-dozen local groups, including worker-owned union shops and not-for-profit co-operatives? If privatized electricity meant no more subsidies for huge, centralized fossil fuel plants and selling power wires to local neighborhood associations that work towards putting up small-scale solar energy production from panels on their roofs? That you and your neighbors were the ones who made the decisions about when your road needs to be fixed and who should be hired to fix it? That you can switch power companies if their service causes power surges and they refuse to compensate you for equipment destroyed, or switch water companies if they start turning the water off without warning for hours at a time? If it meant that utilities would be in the control of a vast, bottom-up network of individual people, voluntary associations, and local co-operatives making the decisions about what they want and need?

I can tell you one thing for sure: nobody on Olive St. would be paying for a bunch of assholes who leave our road torn up for a month and a half while they go work on other stuff.

If you want the services that matter to your life to be provided cheaply and reliably, with high quality and under your own control rather than the control of unaccountable bureaucrats, then the answer to Behemoth corporations is not a Leviathan state! The answer is a society based on local autonomy, co-operative production, and mutual aid–that’s cooperative, not coerced, and mutual aid, not the crumbs of tax monies that the sovereign deigns to drop from the table. Freedom makes your life better. And if it is done in a spirit of giving the people back their own, rather than in the spirit of cutting sweetheart deals with big corporate contributors, then it will especially make life better for people who have historically been oppressed and disenfranchised. That’s not actually the primary reason you should support it (your primary reason should be that other people are not your property). But some things are valued both for themselves and for their consequences; and as consequences go, this is as good a reason as any.

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