Here’s another excerpt from my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons. As usual, praise is welcome, useful criticism even more so. You can find a draft of the opening sections here.
In the section over the fold, I’m looking at public goods and publicly funded services
As we saw earlier, Lesson 1 does not apply to public goods, which can be used all, without any diminution of their usefulness, and for which no price can be charged. Many of the core activities of government may be regarded as providing public goods. These include public health measures, the control of air pollution, urban planning, police services and national defense.
More abstract services such as the legal system, the definition and enforcement of property rights, systems of weights and measures and so on are also public goods. Less obviously, macroeconomic management is a kind of public good (or sometimes a public bad). The level of economic activity, the rate of inflation, exchange rates and interest rates affect everyone, though in different ways.
Most advocates of Lesson 1 recognise at least some of these forms of public good provision as essential. The big disputes arise over services such as health, education and welfare services, which have long been provided, or at least funded, by governments. These services are commonly referred to as ‘human services’, and typically involve a personal relationship (doctor-patient, teacher-student, caseworker client and so on) between the service provider and the recipient.
Although these services are sometimes referred to as public goods, they don’t, in general, meet the criteria economists use to define public goods. A hospital bed or school place provided to one person isn’t available to others, and prices can be charged for access to these services.
On the other hand, neither do these services the standard conditions of Lesson 1. There are two central problems that arise. First, these services are expensive and recipients are rarely in a position to pay for them directly. As a result, all of the problems of risk and insurance, discussed in Chapter 10 …, apply to the financing of these services.
The second problem is that the relationship between providers and recipients typically involves an imbalance of information, power or both. A student is not in a good position to judge whether the education she is receiving is good or bad. Similarly, a patient must rely on their doctor’s expertise and professional ethics to get the appropriate treatment. In other cases, such as that of police services, there is also an imbalance of power, which may be misused.
Advocates of Lesson 1, such as Milton Friedman in Free to Choose have generally accepted the need for public funding to overcome the problems of financing education and, at least in some instances, health care. However, Friedman and others have assumed that any other problems can be overcome by market competition and consumer choice. Indeed, they have argued that market competition will help to prevent corruption and abuses of power that arise when governments provide services directly.
As a result, market advocates have favoured policies based on concepts such as ‘contestability’ and ‘contracting out’, in which for-profit firms compete to provide publicly funded services. The archetypal example is the perennial proposal for school ‘vouchers’, that is, funds allocated to students or their parents which can be paid to whichever school they choose to attend.
This idea was elaborated into a complete ‘reinvention of government’ by writers like Osborne and Gaebler in the late 20th century and implemented, to a large extent, in the wave of market liberal reform led by the Thatcher government in the UK. As a result, we have accumulated plenty of experience of market contestability and for-profit provision.
Theoretical analysis doesn’t give any clear answer as to which model of provision is likely to be best for services like health and education. However, after several decades of experience with market-oriented contestability, the empirical evidence is stark. For-profit provision of such services is at best problematic, and at worst disastrous.
The only other model with success comparable to that of public service provision is not-for-profit provision by organisations with a charitable or activist mission. Church-run schools and hospitals, and activist-run services like women’s shelters and services for the unemployed and homeless, have complemented the public sector, meeting needs that have been unrecognised or underserved.
The issue is not, in the end, one of public versus private. Rather it is the fact that market competition and the profit motive inevitably associated with it is antithetical to the professional and service orientation that is central to human services of all kinds.