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Posts Tagged ‘Private Sector’

No, this post is not about that kind of fantasy.

Instead, we’re dealing strictly with public policy and specifically addressing whether the libertarian agenda is unrealistic.

This is because when I talk to people about libertarianism, they often will say something mildly supportive such as: “I like the idea of getting government out of my wallet and out of my bedroom.”

But then the other shoe drops and they say something skeptical such as: “But you folks are too idealistic in thinking the private sector can do everything.”

If you ask them to elaborate why libertarian ideas are fantasies, you’ll usually hear comments such as:

“Libertarians are crazy to think that we can replace Social Security with personal retirement accounts.” Apparently they’re unaware that dozens of nations including Australia and Chile have very successful private systems.

“Libertarians are silly to think that money could be handled by the private sector.” Apparently they’re unaware that paper money was a creation of the private marketplace and that competitive currencies worked very well in many nations until they were banned by governments.

“Libertarians are naive to think the mail could be delivered in the absence of a government monopoly.” Apparently they’re unaware that many nations such as the United Kingdom and Germany have shifted to competitive private mail delivery.

 “Libertarians are foolish to think that the private sector could build and maintain roads.” Apparently they’re unaware of what I’m going to write about today.

It turns out that the private sector can build roads. And a great example happened earlier this year on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Here are some passages from a story out of the United Kingdom.

A grandfather sick of roadworks near his home defied his council and built his own toll road allowing people to circumvent the disrupted section. Opened on Friday, it’s the first private toll road built since cars became a familiar sight on British roads 100 years ago.  …Mike Watts, 62, hired a crew of workmen and ploughed £150,000 of his own cash into building a 365m long bypass road in a field next to the closed A431. He reckons it will cost another £150,000 in upkeep costs and to pay for two 24 hour a day toll booth operators. …Father of four Mike asked his friend John Dinham if he would mind renting him the field until Christmas and hired three workmen to help build the road in just 10 days. He worked with the Highways Agency, has public liability insurance… But a spokesman for the council said it was not happy about the bold build.

Wow, talk about the private sector coming to the rescue. Two things jump out from that story. First, it took only 10 days and £150,000 to build the road. If the government did it, it would take 20 times as long and cost 30 times as much.

The other noteworthy part of the story is that the local government isn’t happy. Well, of course not. Mr. Watts showed them up.

Some of you may be thinking this is a once-in-a-lifetime story and that we shouldn’t draw any lessons.

But that’s why an article by Nick Zaiac in London’s City A.M. is a must read. He cites the new toll road, but puts it in historical context.

Adams’ work falls into a long tradition of private provision of public services in order to serve some private goal. …Actions like these are not without precedent. In the American island state of Hawaii, residents and business owners gathered together in 2009 to fix a road through a state park that was vital to the area. They completed it entirely for free, with locals donating machinery, materials, and labor. In fact, the project was completed in a shockingly brief eight days. …Private roads have a long and storied history in both Britain and the US. Between 1800 and 1830, private turnpikes made up an astounding 27 per cent of all business incorporations in the US. Britain, between 1750 and 1772, had previously experienced a period of “turnpike mania”, as noted by economic historians Daniel Klein and John Majewski. Put simply, private infrastructure is by no means a new thing. It is simply the slow return to the way many roads were originally built.

Nick then explains that the private sector is making a comeback, and not just for little projects in the United Kingdom and Hawaii.

Australia stands out as one of the leaders. There are currently eight P3 projects on the market, with others in the pipeline, ranging from new rail lines and roads to hospitals. Each of these projects brings private financing into traditionally public projects, with benefits to companies, taxpayers, and, local citizens. Even better, as David Haarmeyer notes in Regulation, infrastructure projects such as those funded public private partnerships serve as good, long-term investments for investors seeking safe returns. …The traditional role of the government as infrastructure monopolist is slowly falling apart. Whether from grassroots efforts or large, complicated P3 projects such as the M6 Toll, the market is proving that it can provide infrastructure that people need, in one way or another.

John Stossel also has written on the topic and discussed modern-day examples of private sector involvement in the United States.

Heck, there are even private lanes on the Virginia side of the “beltway” that circles Washington!

So the moral of the story is that the private sector can do a lot more than people think.

In other words, libertarians may fantasize when they think of very small government. But the fantasy is not because libertarian policy is impractical. The fantasy is thinking (and hoping…and praying…and wishing) that politicians will actually do the right thing.

P.S. You want to know the best part of private roads? If they’re truly private, that means local governments wouldn’t be able to use red-light cameras and ticket traps as scams to generate revenue!

P.P.S. As I explained on Wednesday (only partially tongue in cheek), I’m willing to let the government be in charge of roads if the statists will agree to give people more personal and economic freedom in other areas. I’m not holding my breath waiting for a positive reply.

P.P.P.S. Though if government continued to have authority to build and maintain roads, that doesn’t mean Washington should play a role. The Department of Transportation should be abolished as quickly as possible.

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Alex Tabarrok has a fascinating article in the Wilson Quarterly about the history of bail bondsmen and their role in this privatized segment of the criminal justice system. Let’s start by excerpting some history of the system.

Bail began in medieval England as a progressive measure to help defendants get out of jail while they waited, sometimes for many months, for a roving judge to show up to conduct a trial. If the local sheriff knew the accused, he might release him on the defendant’s promise to return for the hearing. More often, however, the sheriff would release the accused to the custody of a surety, usually a brother or friend, who guaranteed that the defendant would present himself when the time came. So, in the common law, custody of the accused was never relinquished but instead was transferred to the surety—the brother became the keeper—which explains the origin of the strong rights bail bondsmen have to pursue and capture escaped defendants. Initially, the surety’s guarantee to the sheriff was simple: If the accused failed to show, the surety would take his place and be judged as if he were the offender. The English system provided lots of incentives for sureties to make certain that the accused showed up for trial, but not a lot of incentive to be a surety. The risk to sureties was lessened when courts began to accept pledges of cash rather than of one’s person, but the system was not perfected until personal surety was slowly replaced by a commercial surety system in the United States. That system put incentives on both sides of the equation. Bondsmen had an incentive both to bail defendants out of jail and to chase them down should they flee. By the end of the 19th century, commercial sureties were the norm in the United States. (The Philippines is the only other country with a similar system.)

In recent decades, however, some states have begun to restrict or ban the use of private bail bondsmen. Not surprisingly, this hasn’t been good news. The cost to taxpayers rises and the effectiveness of the criminal justice system falls. Here’s another excerpt.

Every state now has some kind of pretrial services program, and four (Illinois, Kentucky, Oregon, and Wisconsin) have outlawed commercial bail altogether. …Today, when a defendant fails to appear, an arrest warrant is issued. But if the defendant was released on his own recognizance or on government bail, very little else happens. In many states and cities, the police are overwhelmed with outstanding arrest warrants. In California, about two million warrants have gone unserved. Many are for minor offenses, but hundreds of thousands are for felonies, including thousands of homicides. In Philadelphia, where commercial bail has been regulated out of existence, The Philadelphia Inquirer recently found that “fugitives jump bail . . . with virtual impunity.” At the end of 2009, the City of Brotherly Love had more than 47,000 unserved arrest warrants. About the only time the city’s bail jumpers are recaptured is when they are arrested for some other crime. …Unserved warrants tend not to pile up in jurisdictions with commercial bondsmen. In those places, the bail bond agent is on the hook for the bond and thus has a strong incentive to bring those who jump bail to justice. My interest in commercial bail and bounty hunting began when economist Eric Helland and I used data on 36,231 felony defendants released between 1988 and 1996 to investigate the differences between the public and private systems of bail and fugitive recovery. Our study, published in TheJournal of Law and Economics in 2004, is the largest and most comprehensive ever written on the bail system. Our research backs up what I found on the street: Bail bondsmen and bounty hunters get their charges to show up for trial, and they recapture them quickly when they do flee. Nationally, the failure-to-appear rate for defendants released on commercial bail is 28 percent lower than the rate for defendants released on their own recognizance, and 18 percent lower than the rate for those released on government bond. Even more important, when a defendant does skip town, the bounty hunters are the ones who pursue justice with the greatest determination and energy. Defendants sought by bounty hunters are a whopping 50 percent less likely to be on the loose after one year than other bail jumpers. In addition to being effective, bail bondsmen and bounty hunters work at no cost to the taxpayers. The public reaps a double benefit, because when a bounty hunter fails to find his man, the bond is forfeit to the government.

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Using road management as an example, John Stossel explains that government does a worse job than the private sector, even at things that theoretically are a government responsibility. Part of this is because of the profit motive, to be sure, but a big reason is probably because government bureaucracies inevitably are filled with overpaid bureaucrats who understand that job security is best assured by maintaining problems rather than solving them. Stossel makes an excellent point by noting that “contracting out” is not the same thing as genuine free enterprise. But at least it means whatever government is doing (either good things or bad things) will be done for less cost and with more competence.

Free enterprise does everything better. Why? Because if private companies don’t do things efficiently, they lose money and die. Unlike government, they cannot compel payment through the power to tax. Even when a private company operates a public facility under contract to government, it must perform. If it doesn’t, it will be “fired” — its contract won’t be renewed. Government is never fired. Contracting out to private enterprise isn’t the same thing as letting fully competitive free markets operate, but it still works better than government. Roads are one example. Politicians call road management a “public good” that “government must control.” Nonsense. In 1995, a private road company added two lanes in the middle of California Highway 91, right where the median strip used to be. It then used “congestion pricing” to let some drivers pay to speed past rush-hour traffic. Using the principles of supply and demand, road operators charge higher tolls at times of day when demand is high. That encourages those who are most in a hurry to pay for what they need. …for years there was a gap in the ring road surrounding Paris that created huge traffic problems. Then private developers made an unsolicited proposal to build a $2 billion toll tunnel in exchange for a 70-year lease to run it. They built a double-decker tunnel that fits six lanes of traffic in the space usually required for just two. The tunnel’s profit-seeking owners have an incentive to keep traffic moving. They collect tolls based on congestion pricing, and tolls are collected electronically, so cars don’t have to stop. The tunnel operators clear accidents quickly. Most are detected within 10 seconds — thanks to 350 cameras inside the tunnel. The private road has cut a 45-minute trip to 10 minutes.

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