Friday, July 12, 2013

Giving prostitutes a bad name

Good news from the homeland, for a change: it looks as if the government may be forced to recant on the madness of privatising the handling of prisoners.

It's telling, I think, that when I was a kid, if someone used the phrase "the prison service", they'd mean "service" as in "to one's country" - like military service, or - no, actually that's the only example I can think of where the meaning of the word is still reasonably close to what it was pre-Thatcher. Nowadays, it means "service" as in "service industry", as in "we may not create any actual output but we're no less commercial for that". Or to put it another way, "our business is modelled on the proud tradition of the world's oldest profession".

I was a firm believer in privatisation in the 80s. Unquestionably it was the right thing to do with manufacturing and mining industries, and with real services (defined as "things that I can be billed for personally, like telecoms or banking or travel"). But some "services" have a fundamentally different character. Policing, prisons, poor relief, public health, justice, fire and medical services, even politicians - these are "public services" that need to be paid for collectively, because any other system lends itself either to gross inequity, or the worst sort of corruption.

Of course corruption happens in non-privatised services too. However, it seems to me that it happens more, since the word "service" got divorced from "public" and shacked up with that slut "industry". That may be just a perception based on reporting/exposure, but if so it's a very widely shared perception.

The difference is that a service that is "public" can, in principle, be cleaned up. Given sufficient political will (read: outrage or scandal), you can appoint a new chief with the skills and determination to root out this sort of abuse. It doesn't happen often, and when it does, it doesn't generally last all that long.

But in a "service industry", the very concept of such "cleaning" makes no sense. When all incentives, both benefits and penalties, are expressed in terms of money, it follows that anything you can do to get more money is, by definition, not wrong. In these cases, moral bankruptcy isn't a failure or a collapse of anything - it's the baseline assumption of the system.


mumsie said...

I beg to differ. Do you seriously think that our big famous public broadcasting service, the BBC can be cleaned up? Or for that matter, despite some attempts, our MP's outrageous level of pay and expense claims, to mention just a couple.

vet said...

Do you imagine MPs would be more honest if they weren't paid by the public purse? We tried that for several hundred years. It was changed because the old system was so manifestly corrupt that even the King was willing to co-operate in dismantling it.

As for the BBC - it absolutely could be cleaned up, if there was the political will to do it. That would require, most of all, a consensus on what "cleaning up" actually means in their case. At present, despite various scandals, I don't see any evidence - nor any consensus, even among their harshest critics - of widespread fraud or abuse of their position.